“I hope you all learned a lesson. All of you go to bed now,” Dad said.
We happily did so.
My family still laughs about this night around the dinner table from time to time some 27 years later. Each one of us has our own version of what happened. My three siblings and I are convinced that we were on that wall until two in the morning. Mom and Dad swear they never showed any anger, and that it wasn’t nearly that late nor did the punishment last nearly that long. I suppose in the end what matters is the lessons we each learned.
I learned very different lessons at the time than what I learned later on in life as a father myself.
What I learned in the moment and in the days that followed was very counter-productive to what Mom and Dad were attempting to teach us.
I learned that it wasn’t all that difficult to take advantage of the innocent. I bribed Amy into taking the hit for us all, and then I coerced her into giving all of my stuff back a few days later. That was a dangerous lesson to learn.
I also learned that withholding the truth for long enough would probably give me enough time to find a way around it. From that day forth, dishonesty and secrecy became my forte in that home.
I understand the lesson that was trying to be taught. I understand that they wanted to show us all that dishonesty can hurt more people than yourself. They wanted to teach us that honesty up front could save us all sorts of long-term negative consequences. But that lesson was lost on me because the fear I had of the consequences of dishonesty outweighed all of it.
Once Noah reached the age where I had to start giving him punishments for poor choices, I found myself thinking back to that night on the wall and the lessons I learned.
I stacked a roll of quarters into ten even stacks. That’s all I did. I didn’t steal any of them. I just piled them up. So why was admitting the truth of something so negligible such a terrifying notion to me?
The honest truth is that I don’t remember enough of the reasons why I was usually disciplined as a child to give you a very good answer. What I do know is that I never had a proper belief that the punishment would fit the crime. I believed I would be punished swiftly, mightily, and equally for the smallest infractions to the biggest ones, and so I treated every mistake I ever made as equal.
Now that I have a son of my own, I sometimes gauge whether or not he fears me the way I feared my own parents when I was little. I understand that if my child will not confess menial things because he is not confident in my ability to keep from overreacting, then I need to rethink things both as a dad and as a disciplinarian.
As my kid gets older, my role in his life is going to change. His mistakes will become more his business and so much less my own. He will start taking his own big lessons away from his actions. As he does, he needs to know that he can come to me and confide his mistakes in me. He needs to know that he can ask me for my advice. He needs to know that he can say, “Dad, I did something kind of stupid,” and that I’ll help him know how to handle it without blowing things out of proportion.
Looking back at this, I really believe that right now is when I am earning the trust of the future young adult version of my son. Every reaction I have is going to clump together to determine just how safe he feels being imperfect in my eyes down the road. I just hope I get enough of my reactions right that my kid wants his old man’s advice for life.
Dan Pearce, from my book: The All-Important, Well-Fed, Giant White Man
Last Chapter: Noah’s Shit-Word Spree
Next up:It’s About Time
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