Sunday, January 28, 2007

Teach Your Children Well

During my daily skulking around the internet, I came across a post at Bub and Pie that piqued my interest (and generally made me wish, yet again, that my posts were this coherent). She talks about the nature of protecting your children, and not just from physical threats, but from the insidious nature of things like discrimination and injustice; the slippery and pervasive evils that taint us and refuse to be contained. She talks, in part, about a righteous anger, when a threat is directed toward your child, but how anger may not always be the proper course. It's where you draw the line, and the sands always seem to be shifting for a parent.

My parents' methods of dealing with these things were different. My mother was always the one to Say Something when she felt an injustice toward her children. She didn't coddle, and she didn't advocate self-pity. She told us to work hard and make our own decisions, but we also knew where she stood, and it was on Our Side. I was often embarrassed by her when I was a teenager, but now I find myself being the one to turn to my husband and ask, "Shouldn't we say something about this? I really think we need to say something."
My father was quieter. It's not that he avoided confrontation, but his temper, his sense of injustice was harder to rile. I wouldn't go so far as to call him laid-back, but he was genial, more conciliatory. He let many things go, but he brooked no true trespass upon his children, physical or otherwise.

There is a tale in my family, a true tale, and one that has been repeated many times. Growing up, my family lived in the city of Reading, PA, and, at that time, it was a wonderful place to be. Our row homes were stacked like comfortable Legos, each one overlapping and sharing the same foundations, and packs of neighborhood children called to each other on summer afternoons. Our home was near the corner of 15th and Fairview, and we always counted ourselves lucky to be less than a stone's throw from the neighborhood park. We could cross the street to swings and slides, ball fields, and the mountains beyond. One of the few restrictions on the park was a large No Bicycles sign at the entrance, primarily to protect the toddler and pre-school age children that frequented the play areas. Of course, under the Rules Are Made to be Broken Corollary, there were many adolescent (and some not-so-adolescent) bike riders in the park, enjoying the sweeping hill that occupied one area and the short cut to the ball field that it provided. It was one of those things that everyone knew about, and shook their heads about, and tsk'ed about, but never knew what to really do about.

You could clearly see our back door from the park, you could probably see inside our kitchen from the park, so it was always considered safe. And it was on a beautiful afternoon that my father could see me, my mother, my younger brother, and our neighbor enjoying ourselves. My brother was young, under 2, because I remember him not yet possessing the sturdy, self-assured posture of an older toddler. He stayed close to my mother and Susie, our neighbor, until he wanted a drink from the water fountain. He toddled over, so proud of himself for trying to reach the fountain without assistance, and I saw his blond head just barely meeting the lip of the fountain. My mother and Susie were within three steps of him, and I was the farthest away, so I saw it first, coming into my peripheral vision like a shadow. It was a bike, whizzing by with a teenager hunched over in a posture of speed. In the time it took for my mother to call my brother's name, the bike mowed him down at the water fountain. The three of us watched his little body bounce under the wheels, as the bike kept going, the rider never looking back. My mother and Sue picked him up and tried to get him to stand, but he couldn't. He cried out in pain as his legs buckled beneath him.

What we didn't know was that my father had seen the entire incident from our home, and he was propelled by a fury that we rarely saw in him. He vaulted himself from our backyard, ran into the park, and caught the young biker pedaling up the hill. He was so fast, and he grabbed this boy with such force, that as he plucked him off of the bike it maintained its momentum, unaware that the rider was gone. My mother called out, convinced that my father was about to strangle this boy. Maybe not strangle, but it seemed he certainly intended some kind of bodily harm. Instead, my father just picked up my brother and stalked out of the park.

In the end, it turned out that this boy had broken my brother's leg, but the rest of the story is a blur to me. I remember the police coming to the house; the teenager's family pleading with my parents not to press charges since it would send the young man to juvenile hall; my brother's tiny, casted leg; my mother crying. I don't even remember if my parents did press charges, but I do know that the story got out and it seemed to me that the number of bikes in the park hit a sharp decline. But what I remember most is my father single-mindedly running down this bike that had hurt his child, as if every instance in which he let something go had welled up inside him and burst free at that moment.

I hope that with my children I can hit upon the right combination of speaking up, of letting go, and of doggedly chasing down, because they are always watching me. I hope that they see in me what I see in my mother: a willingness to speak up when the circumstances demand a voice. I hope they see what I see in my father: that sometimes letting go is the better course, but that there are certain situations which will never, ever be okay with me.

And I pray hard for the wisdom to know which remedy to choose.


  1. Finding the balance is hard. Sometimes I want to rush in like mama bear. However, I know the kids need to make mistakes and face the consequences. That has been a topic of great discussion around our house lately. Wisdom in raising the kids is always in my prayers.

  2. This post reminds me of something C.S. Lewis wrote about men and women. He defended the idea of male headship in marriage by claiming that men were inherently more able than women to negotiate reasonably with the outside world. The woman's nature, he argued, is (rightly and necessarily) to fight for her family, to be on Their Side. Her anger on her children's behalf validates and supports them, while her husband's ability to negotiate reasonably with outsiders models alternative responses. As a universal gender dynamic, that is absolute rot, of course, but what's interesting to me now is Lewis's recognition of the need for balance between those two responses: anger and conciliation.

    I think the reason I remember my mother fighting for my sister is because, like your dad, she was usually more laid-back. There's something very awe-inspiring about the wrath of those who are slow to anger.


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