I am a bully.
I know this thanks to my son, who has seized on anti-bullying empowerment language that he’s learning … somewhere. School, I assume, although he’s never been specific. He’s too busy hurling accusations at me.
“It’s time to go to bed,” I’ll say. “Please go upstairs and start your bath.”
“Mom, that HURTS MY FEELINGS. It is NOT time for bed. You are BULLYING ME!”
I try to suppress a laugh — and fail. Bad mistake.
“You are MAKING FUN OF ME! That’s not nice, and you should not do that! That makes me angry, and it’s OK to be angry!”
Off he stomps, presumably to find a trusted adult to report me to.
This happens multiple times a day — pretty much anytime I say something he doesn’t want to hear: No more movies, no chocolate bar for dinner, wash your hands, rinse off your plate. My bullying knows no limits.
It’s not the first time he’s interpreted well-meaning lessons the wrong way. Take fire safety. I know the fire department means well. I think it’s awesome that they take the trucks to the schools and let the kids explore them. They have the fire safety talk, which my son totally ignores, because school is the place he has designated for daydreaming. So far, so good, because if he actually heard what they were saying, he would come unglued on the spot.
For kids who understand that phrases like “Here’s what to do if …” are describing things that are a remote possibility, fire safety talks make all the sense in the world. But for kids who think “if” means “when,” and “when” means “tonight,” it’s a different story.
After putting off the fire safety talk for years, I finally gave it a try a few weeks ago. I approached the subject exactly the way the “experts” recommend, which of course was a mistake. And in a matter of minutes, I had a sobbing 9-year-old thinking the house was going to burn to the ground that night and we were all going to die.
He demanded that I acknowledge I’d made a huge mistake, and that a fire couldn’t possibly happen. Nothing short of this would calm him and get him into bed. Against my better judgment, I made a promise that I do not have the power to guarantee: There will be no fire. Ever.
What makes the entire thing really stupid on my part (other than trusting so-called experts who have silly little letters after their names) is the fact that a fair amount of my fire safety lesson would be useless anyway. He’s not nearly strong enough to open his bedroom window, so that escape option is out. Why did I even bring it up?
Because I’m trying to be a good parent, just like we all are. If there’s anything modern suburban America takes seriously, it’s parenting. That’s why everyone got so worked up about “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua a couple of years ago: Her book made it clear that when it comes to obsessive parenting, we can’t hold a candle to the Chinese. Thank goodness.
Our own parents, of course, think we are nuts. They did not waste time worrying about whether spanking constituted child abuse. They also did not waste time holding squirmy toddlers in “time out.” They’d never heard of gluten or “screen time,” both of which your average 21st-century parent constantly frets over. The thing I miss most about the 1970s and ’80s isn’t the fact that I was young and gloriously skinny; it’s the fact that I rarely ever heard a snide judgment about other people’s dietary preferences, entertainment choices or parenthood style.
My son will never know that laid-back world, although I do my part by ignoring most parenting advice. I’m especially good at ignoring advice about how important it is to eat dinner together as a family, because in our house, that just isn’t going to happen, for a long list of reasons.
I’ll admit this is probably why my son’s table manners are a bit, um, rough. I’ll even admit that I recently had him watch an episode of “King of the Hill” that featured a cotillion class, just because I hoped he’d pick up some pointers on manners. (Those of you who have never watched “King of the Hill” are not nearly as horrified right now as you should be. The rest of you are probably calling social services.)
Regardless, though, we’re a happy family. We don’t need to eat dinner together to accomplish this. We don’t need to follow the current script for parenting, the constant running from one activity to the next. We can do without the fire safety chat, for now. We’ll wait until our son has a bit more perspective.
Perhaps by that time, we’ll no longer be bullies.
Sarah Smith Nessel, a 913 freelance columnist, writes The Bubble each week.