In terms of their offspring, my parents had it easy. Well, until I became a teenager, I suppose (there are too many stories about that). But in childhood, my sister and I were hardly ever poorly behaved and always listened to what we were told. I know I tried to be as good as I could, as my conscience was so easily weighted down when I acted out that the punishment became concreted into my soul. I was a shy child who was happy when no one was mad.
A lot of this was due to the careful work and wonderfully cunning parenting strategies of my mother. She cared for my sister and I, and she molded us as best she could to be courteous and good-natured. I still remember the dinner we had the night before my first sleepover. The entire meal was a lesson. I was to sit up straight, compliment the meal, try everything on my plate even if I knew I didn’t like it, keep my elbows off the table, never speak with a mouthful of food…the list goes on. It was boot camp for my first meal at another family’s dinner table. It might sound a bit overdone with the way parents let things slide in this day and age, but it was all about respect to my mother. You show others your best because you respect them, no exceptions. She taught me countless lessons throughout my life with her, and I’ll admit that one of the side quests of keeping this blog is to relive and revive the wonderful wisdom of my late mother.
A side effect of teaching me to be proper and polite all the time was a small lack of resilience. Perhaps part of that was genetic for me, I’ll never be sure. But mom’s lessons were focused on how to be a good person, not how to handle people who weren’t. Naturally, I myself would push the envelope every now and again, but when I was caught, I had no clue of how to cope with the punishment. I had been told how good I was so often that when I acted out and was caught, it seemed the world would end.
I still remember getting busted for flicking rubber bands at another kid in the back of the class in sixth grade. It was during a time when we were all supposed to be silently reading. The teacher caught me and called me up to her desk. During the long, terrible march toward my fate, my conscience had beaten me up so terribly that I was holding back tears when I finally stood before the teacher. I remember her nearly laughing at me, because really, how bad could the punishment have been? I was flicking rubber bands. But, I wasn’t supposed to misbehave. I knew better. And I had never been in that much trouble before. Seriously. Sixth grade was the first time I was called up to the teacher’s desk for poor behavior, ever. And I was so miserable about it that she just told me not to do it again. You can be sure as shit that I did not.
There’s a chair that sits in the corner of my present-day dining room that I kept from my childhood. It’s a really nice student chair, but it’s nothing remarkable. I’m not terribly nostalgic, nor do I enjoy keeping extra things around, but this chair has significance for me. Back when I was a kid, I dubbed this chair “the punishment chair.” It was where I was told to sit when I got into trouble, hence the nickname. Being told to sit in that chair was so awful for me that I named the chair, and I certainly avoided it at home. How many times did I have to be sent to the dreaded punishment chair?
Twice. In ten years. For maybe a minute each time. But the lesson stuck, and I find that so funny, so bizarre, that I can’t help but hang onto this important psychological artifact.
In short, I was a good kid whose conscience had a hair-trigger. I hated getting in trouble.
I wasn’t born good, though. I cried and cried for the first nine months of my life, much to my parents’ loss of sanity. But after those nine months, I became angelic, and I’ve been that way ever since (wink-wink).
My sister and I owe a great amount of gratitude for our good behavior to the intelligent upbringing by our mother. Mom was one of those people who threw out the instruction manual and figured people out all on her own, and her children were no exception. Mom was a good mom not because she had great strategies that work for raising children, she was a good mom because she took the time to get to know her children, and once she knew who we were, she knew what would work best for us. This is why the punishment chair was so effective. She knew that if I had an object, a reminder, sitting in the middle of the living room that reminded me of what happens when I misbehaved, I would stay on my best behavior. Standing in a corner or sitting in my room wouldn’t work for me; I needed daily interaction with “the punishment chair.”
The best example of how well our mother knew us is also one of the funniest memories (in retrospect, not while experienced) from my childhood. My sister and I love telling this story whenever we are reminded of it.
Emily and I always got along when we were kids. Always. We played together constantly. A lot of our play was in the basement, and we would incorporate all of our toys. Transformers would interact with She-Ra who would ride My Little Ponies who would talk to GI Joes while Matchbox cars raced below everyone’s feet. We had a blast. We would even agree on music. It was a lot of Weird Al and Bon Jovi with some Debbie Gibson mixed in. We had a Fisher Price record player and fists full of 45’s. We would play and play and play. There were dress up clothes and all sorts of fodder available for imaginary play. The basement was our country, and we ruled it well.
Upon one rare day, Emily and I got into a fight about something. I really couldn’t even tell you what, because it was nothing worth remembering to begin with. We had the occasional disagreement, but that’s all I would have called them. We worked it out 80% of the time, and the only reason I use 80% is because we maybe had five fights and this was the one and only time we needed outside assistance to sort things out.
Whatever this particular fight was about, it had digressed to the point to which Emily had decided she needed to invoke the threat.
“I’m gonna go tell mom!”
I was either confident in my side of the argument or trying to call her bluff when I said, “Go ahead!”
Emily marched upstairs, stomping each hollow step up to the first floor just to let me know that yes, she was actually going upstairs, and yes, mom would know about how bad I was being.
When she reached mom, Emily laid out her case against me. She stated how she was completely right and I was completely wrong, no doubt.
In the vast majority of American households, this situation would usually be followed by the mother directly intervening, perhaps talking to her son and daughter together, coming to a conclusion, and doling out punishments, if needed.
This is not how this went down. Our mom knew us better than that. Plus, she knew to “work smart” before she had to “work hard.” She was a highly intelligent woman, so the genius solution came to her right away. After hearing Emily’s arguments to completion, she simply turned to her and asked:
“Why don’t you just hit him?”
Emily was at a loss for words. I’m sure her eyes grew beyond their sockets in disbelief after receiving this advice. This did not faze my mother one bit. She decided to just bring it all to an end with a simple solution.
“If he’s making you that mad, just go back down there and hit him.”
Emily then returned downstairs. I was nervous, but I didn’t want her to see that. When I saw that Emily came back down alone, I figured I was in the clear. The look on her face was one I interpreted as defeat, that her argument was not well received by mom. In that annoying “na-na” tone that young children can make, I asked my sister, “What did she say?” The tone was cocky and nasal in an attempt to make fun of her for being wrong.
My sister wasn’t making eye contact with me before I asked this question. She was, in retrospect, trying to process our mother’s advice, not trying to cope with being wrong.
She finally looked up at me, wide-eyed.
“She told me to hit you.”
She said this like it was a command from the president himself, and there was no way of backing down. I remember my spine shivering. Had my mother agreed with my sister’s side so much so to the point of advocating violence? I was astounded. I would have been less surprised if my sister had come back downstairs speaking Japanese. The obvious question came to mind.
“You aren’t going to, are you?”
We just stared at each other for a moment, still trying to process what had just happened.
“No. I’m not going to hit you.”
If my mom were a chess player, she could have given Bobby Fisher a run for his money, I’m telling you. She knew as soon as she commanded my sister to hit me that she was ending not only the current argument, but many future arguments as well. Of course my sister wasn’t going to hit me; neither one of us ever wanted to hurt the other. By simply telling my sister to hit me, our mom was putting our arguments into perspective for us.
From that point on, if what your sibling was doing to aggravate you was so important and you were so sure that you were right, then why not just hit them? We knew that we didn’t ever want to hit each other, so any little spat just got sorted out. That was really the last argument I can remember having with Emily when we were kids. I’m not saying this strategy would work with any other kids, but our mom knew us, and she knew what would work.
Checkmate, mom. Well played.