“I’m telling mom.”
I blinked a few times and tried to get myself out of the time warp that the words had thrown me into. For a few seconds I was 10 years old again and one of my younger brothers had just promised to inform my mother of some dastardly offense that I had just performed on them.
But I wasn’t 10 years old again and it wasn’t my little brother. I was full grown and in the here and now and Charlie had just said he was going to tell his mother that I had called him a name.
“I’m telling mom,” he repeated, folding his arms across his chest. “You are not supposed to call names and you are going to get in trouble.” He raised his chin slightly with the same look that a chess master might have when he achieves checkmate.
“I called you slowpoke,” I said. To my horror, there was slightest indignant whine to my voice.
“That’s a name,” he said. Double checkmate.
“So it is butt head,” I answered before I could stop myself.
“She’s your mom, not mine,” I said defiantly. “She’s not the boss of me . . .” Did I really just go there?
“I’m not whose boss?” Oh crap. Mom was here.
“Dad called me a name.”
“He started it,” I said feeling more pathetic than I sounded.
My wife gave me a did-this-really-just-happen-to-you-again? look and put her arm around Charlie. “Daddy doesn’t mean to call names, that’s just how he does things.”
Great. Outmaneuvered by a seven-year-old and thrown under a bus by my wife within moments of each other. I pulled myself out from underneath the bus and pondered my situation. As I stood in the kitchen wondering what happened Eli walked up to me. “Daddy,” he said as he turned his back to me. “See my butt?”
“Yes, buddy. I see your butt.”
He bent over slightly and bounced his bottom against me while singing “See my butt!”. We call this Eli’s Butt Dance. I have no clue where it came from or how he thought it up but it was a perfect compliment to my earlier situation. Clearly my position of authority was in question.
It would be easy to say that my authority began to decline when I started staying at home with the boys. That is true from a chronological standpoint, however to imply that my boys see me as less of an authority figure because I stay home and do housework is to come dangerously close to implying that anybody that stays home with the kids has a position of less authority than somebody who works outside the house. I am not stupid enough to piss off that specific demographic.
My mom stayed home with us and she had plenty of authority. My father was the absolute authority figure in our household, but mom still had her clout. Now that I think about it most of her authoritarian pull came from her association with my Dad. Nobody wanted him in disciplinarian mode, so it seemed best to keep mom relatively happy. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t give her a certain amount of guff. We did and she disciplined us, but we knew how far to push it. Nobody wanted to hear her say, “Wait until your father comes home.” (Cue ominous sounding music here)
I was afraid that becoming a stay-at-home-dad would make my hold on my man-card somewhat tenuous. I am fairly certain that the Man Standards Executive Committee (Yes it exists, but it is shrouded in secrecy and testosterone) would immediately, and with prejudice, pull my man-card permanently if I ever uttered the words, “Wait until your Mother comes home.” My mom drew from my Dad’s authority, but I don’t have the option of drawing from my wife’s. Besides being against man-rules, there is another reason: My wife doesn’t rule through fear and intimidation.
I thought about it some more . . . it’s not that my kids don’t respect my authority . . . it’s just that they aren’t afraid of me. That was a bit of an epiphany. I have to admit that for most of my parenting life, I assumed that they were the same thing. Wait, wait, wait . . . this can’t be right, I thought.
I tried an experiment. “Charlie,” I called.
He looked up from his pile of Legos in the living room. “Yes?”
“Could you please get me a roll of paper towels from the laundry room?”
“Sure,” he smiled. He went to the laundry room, fetched the towels and brought them to me.
I studied him as he went.
“Here you go.”
“Thank you son.” I decided to push it. “Can you go upstairs and get me a diaper for Eli?”
“Really?” he asked. “All the way upstairs?”
“OK,” he sighed then smiled. “Time me!” He tore through the kitchen and up the stairs for the diaper.
So . . . obedience, relative cheerfulness and smiles. Seemed respectful enough. But no fear. Not even a hint of nervous trepidation.
What did all this mean? Charlie brought the diaper and stood in front of me panting.
“Uh, 14 seconds.” I took the diaper and put it on the counter. He walked off with a satisfied smirk.
I guess this means that fear and respect are not the same thing. I thought about it. Even if my mom didn’t have my Dad’s immenent arrival to hold over our heads, we would have mostly done what she asked. We didn’t need to be afraid.
Don’t look at me like that. I have never tried to make my kids afraid of me. That’s not me. I guess i just assumed that to occupy the position of authority I thought I should occupy in my family that my kids would have to have a certain level of fear. I just wasn’t willing to make them afraid.
So instead of being a classic authority figure, I try to communicate with my boys on their level. I have taught them necessary kid skills like how to blow bubbles in your chocolate milk (white milk doesn’t bubble right) and how to shoot the paper covering your drinking straw into your mom’s hair.
When I ask them to do something for me I let them say no sometimes. Just sometimes. Mostly I let them say no if I am asking them to do something just because I don’t want to do it myself.
I tell them I don’t believe accidents are inevitable. If one happens, I try to show them where the accident could be avoided. Then we clean up or fix it or whatever it takes together.
I ask the boys what they want for dinner and try to take it into consideration. If they don’t get exactly what they want then I try to add something that will like.
I say “please” when I ask them to do something for me. If I expect them to say it then they should hear it from me.
My wife and I see eye to eye on this. In fact I am following her lead.
The result is that I have children who tell their mother when I call them a “slowpoke” and feel free to bounce their butts on me, but they also, mostly do what they are asked when they are asked. For the most part they can be trusted to do the right thing. Well . . . they do the right thing from a 2 and 7 year old perspective.
Another result is that weconsistently get compliments on how polite and repectful they are. They look people in the eye and smile. There is no fear in them.
That works for me.
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