A Parenting Story from the Past

A long time ago, in a life now far, far away …

My boys were 6 and 4. Normal kids. Even-tempered kids. Good kids. My kids. Certainly not felons. So when news spread that a lawn tractor sitting on my neighbor’s property had been vandalized, I didn’t give it much thought. My wife and I didn’t think highly of the family, especially their two boys (who were a little older and slouchier than ours), and we figured they had trashed the tractor, which belonged to a contractor doing work on their property.

You can probably see where this is going. Two days later, my wife got a call from another neighbor who had boys about the same age as ours. There had been a confession. Seems the four had been playing behind our house when they decided—seemingly out of the blue—to kick the crap out of the tractor. They broke the glass on the instrument panel. Put grass and mud in the gas tank. I didn’t even think they knew what a gas tank was.

My wife called me at work to relay the news. I listened, my stomach dropped, and I could barely talk.

The worst part, she said, was that the 4-year-old had come inside when they were doing this TO ASK FOR A PAIR OF SCISSORS—and my wife gave them to him. They used them to cut the fuel line.

My god. We were accomplices.

Moreso than we thought. I came home that night in a black mood. Threatened to tell Santa Claus no more presents. Even scarier, threatened to tell their grandparents the same thing. Talked about what it was going to be like in juvie.

Finally, I had worked out my anger. I wanted an answer.

“Why?!? Why, in God’s name, did you guys do this???” I screamed, turning my angry pink (as you can tell by my picture, I do several shades of pink).

And I got an answer I didn’t expect: They thought they could do it because they knew my wife and I didn’t like our neighbors. And that made it OK.

That took the wind out of my sails.

Well, we all made a trek up to the neighbors to apologize, all of us. And the two families made restitution to the landscaper for the tractor’s repairs. And I learned a valuable lesson: Your kids, even the little ones, hear everything you say. And they read your body language and every other signal you give off. Even if they can’t articulate it always, they get it. So if you want them to respect other people, then you need to, too—even when you don’t like them. Especially when you don’t like them. Walk your talk. Mute the hater and hypocrite inside you. Model what you want, or be prepared to do a lot of yelling—or, worse yet, crying. I was a sadder, guiltier, but wiser dad.

One other thing we learned as parents—you better find the laughs, because sometimes they’re the only thing that sustains you. In this little tale, the best line belongs to my youngest. We had a police officer—there had been a criminal report filed when the vandalism was discovered—come to our home to talk to the boys, all four of them, from age 7 to 4. They all sat on the couch, their legs straight in front of them because their knees didn’t come close to the front edge, as the cop read them the riot act. Explained that the incident would go in their file, that if they committed another crime that they might end up in juvenile detention, they might be taken from their homes. As he was winding up he asked for them to confirm some details.

He turned to my youngest. “You! When were you born?”

And this little, sincere voice came off the couch. “Val-en-tine’s Day.”

Which was true. Kelly was born Feb. 14.

Even the cop couldn’t keep a straight face.

That’s about the end of the story. The apologizing was the punishment (for them, that is; my friend and I had to split the $1,500 in tractor repairs). They continued to play with their friends. Christmas came that year. And whether they were scared straight or simply recovered from their momentary insanity, we’ve never had an incident of destructive nihilism again. For a time, my wife and I held our breaths and kept a sharp eye for other scary detours into dark territory, but nobody tortured the family cat, became fascinated with fire, or was accused of touching a girl where she didn’t want to be touched. They were the pretty-good kids they had always been.

I’m grateful for that, and also respectful of the mischief and the mayhem that lurks not too far under even the best-behaved boys—not cruelty, mind you, but wildness. It’s part of being a boy. And a man, I think.

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