My father didn't care who started it.
He didn't care about the build-up, the back story. He didn't care to hear our justifications or even our apologies. He just wanted it to end.
My sister and I were fighting. It was noisy. It was interfering with his peace.
"Hands!" he would say sharply, cutting through whatever high-stakes argument one of us was making, by way of words or actions, at the moment.
We both knew what "Hands!" meant. It meant we had to drop what we were doing, and I mean immediately -- mid-punch, mid-kick, even mid-obscenity. We had to walk over to wherever he stood and stand side by side. We had to raise our hands, palms down, next to each other. At which point he would slap the tops of our hands, hard.
If you pulled your hand away, you had to do it again, and again, until you kept it there.
On its own terms, Dad's approach to discipline worked: that single word "Hands!" generally ended our fights. And the message was unmistakable: He was the grown-up and we were the kids.
Mom was different. She would pull us apart, and even as she did so, she would get involved. She would take turns listening to our grievances. She would patiently wait out our tears, our tantrums, and our tales of unmatched woe, cruelty and terrible misunderstanding. She would even sympathize with both sides.
Sometimes she did manage to pin the blame on one or the other of us. Usually, though, she found a way of reframing our fight to partially exonerate and partially blame each of us. Among her many gifts, she has an amazing ability to reframe almost anything and make it positive.
On the rare occasions when she hit her tolerance threshold, Mom would call for "Hands!" like Dad. When this happened, my sister and I would begin giggling even before extending our hands. We eagerly awaited the Kabuki dance of my mom trying to act severe but then slapping our hands in the most painless and half-hearted manner you could ever imagine. Not only did she tend to favor whoever she considered the victim of that particular altercation, but even if she had determined that you had started it, the slap you got to your hand was something you might have paid a professional to do to you at a luxury spa.
The bottom line was that we were treated as equals. She was a referee, and we were the players, but we were all playing the same game.
What do I think of these two very different understandings of discipline in retrospect? How will I respond as my children enter the fighting years?
I think both are useful.
So far, I find myself favoring my mom's approach. I want to know what happened. I try to see it from both boys' perspective (Adeline, at 7 months, gets more furious with her rattle than her brothers, so I can't include her in this).
I hope never to resort to hand-slapping, but if I ever do then I can imagine that, like for my mom, my ambivalence about it will be the cause of much hilarity.
I think that my mom's approach to discipline, which is more egalitarian and breaks down the boundaries between parents and children, establishes a comfort-level with talking things out which will bode well for a lifetime of close relationships.
At the same time, I find myself aware that there is a benefit in also establishing a clear boundary between the childrens' needs and the grown-ups' needs in our home. In this respect I find myself drawn to my Dad's approach with surprising frequency -- even if I haven't resorted to a "Hands!" yet.
I sometimes hear myself empasizing to George (who is 3 and 1/2) that he should do what I say because I have reasons for what I say. Grown-up reasons. And sometimes, when he is fighting with Cole (who is 2) I tell him that, frankly, I don't always need to enumerate all of my reasons to them; that can come later... Maybe the reason is only that their mother and I are at wit's end after a long morning of demands, whining, mishaps, spills, and squabbles. That's reason enough!
I think it is healthy for children to know that their parents listen to them. We can even change our minds and admit that we were wrong, if that is the case. But it is also healthy for kids to know that their mom and dad are the ones who get to call the shots. At least this will set them up to assume their own authority when they raise their own children. It will feel familiar to them.
What's the political angle into all of this?
An article in this week's New Republic, by Jeffrey Rosen, reviews Supreme Court Clarence Thomas' new memoir, My Grandfather's Son, and a new biography on him as well. Rosen points out that over the past 20 years or so politicians have been reeling with the ever more egalitarian drift of our culture. The larger-than-life profile of the leader has disintegrated in our celebrity culture. Now we are all just doing "our thing." You may be a Movie Star, you may be a Senator; I have chosen another path... So what have you done for me lately?
In this way of looking at it, as a culture we seem to have abandoned any pretense of the "grown-up world." We are all just kids now ("Do you wear boxers or briefs, Mr. Clinton?").
Rosen's point is that Thomas has ruined his stature as a Supreme Court Justice by publishing his self-pitying, self-congratulatory memoir. It's like a parent telling his kids why he's so great. It has brought him down to size.
The article made me think: Which national politicians out there still retain a quality of being "grown-ups" -- standing slightly apart, as parents stand apart from the boundary-less disputes of their children? Perhaps McCain. Perhaps Hillary. Perhaps Obama. Perhaps Dodd. Certainly Russ Feingold... Certainly Jim Webb... I can't think of any others. The rest stoop too low or reveal too much.
To take it a step further: Who are the politicians who combine this stand-apart, "grown-up world" quality (my dad's approach, good for establishing priorities) with a sense of equal-standing, of genuine interest in the views of the voters (my mom's approach, good for establishing trust)? Who brings both understandings to his or her commitment to public service?
You've guessed my answer. It seems to be the theme this week.
(Starts with an "O.")