Well Machiavelli, I Want to Be Loved AND Feared


My oldest son enjoys sitting in the armchair next to the fireplace, reading Harry Potter on my tablet. My youngest enjoys jumping on the armchair. Yes, I think you know where this is going. New tablet left on arm of chair + spasmodic 3-year-old  = tablet on floor with its glass face shattered. No sweat – it was an accident, accidents happen, and glass can always be replaced.

There is also a shelf next to the fireplace and the armchair, on which we put the Nativity set that my father carved for my mother 55 Christmases ago. (I wrote in detail about it in a post about traditions.) That Nativity set sat on our mantle every Christmas when I was growing up, and needless to say it has a great deal of sentimental value, particularly since my father passed away.

Yes, I think you know where this is also going. Last night I was looking over the angels and the the Wise Men, the lambs and what is this? a donkey looking decidedly forlorn, what with one of his ears missing and all.

Now, the nub of wood that comprises the donkey’s ear is little larger than a Tic Tac. A nublet of wood at best. But that nublet of wood represented a lot more to me than the face of a Galaxy 3 tablet, and so I went frantically in search of it.

I rummaged through the vacuum cleaner, sifting with my fingers through what was largely a noxious potpourri of shed human skin and hair, mite crap, airborne pollutants, and God-knows-what-else. (You don’t want to know what’s in the dust bunnies breeding under your sofa, but just to give you an idea, your pillow’s weight, by two years of age, is up to 1/3 “bugs, dead skin and house dust mites and their feces.” You’re welcome.) It wasn’t there.

Finally I found it under the coffee table, and with careful and loving precision restored it to its proper place. This wasn’t the donkey’s first experience with aural amputation. The thin, spindly bits of the farm animals in my father’s creche have suffered over the years, with 5 kids rearranging and manhandling the various pieces, and in fact I don’t remember my father’s reaction to the occasional fragmentation and reintegration of a) a religious representation of the birth of Christ and b) something that he’d worked long and hard to create.

But for us kids, I imagine the emotion involved in breaking off the donkey’s ear could most accurately be described as mortal terror. My father was philosophically a gentle soul, a Methodist minister much admired by his parishoners and the local community, but pissing this physically imposing 6-foot-1-inch, 210-pound man off was a losing proposition.

So I got to wondering. How did my reaction to these two events correspond to what would have been my father’s? And how were my kids’ reactions correlative to what would have been mine in a similar situation growing up?

I don’t think of myself as a particularly strict father. Others, including my wife, seem to disagree. When some good friends of ours spent a day with a family whose kids are, to be kind, somewhat challenging, on the car ride home the husband commented to his wife, “Those kids need to be Matted.” Indeed, he used me as a verb, the first and only time to the best of my knowledge. What he meant was (I think, and perhaps I’m being overly kind to myself), “These kids need some discipline and structure in their lives.”

I know for sure that I’m not as strict as my parents were – we never were allowed to leave our toys strewn about the house and my father’s standard rejoinder to “I don’t like what we’re having for dinner” was an unequivocal (and growly) “You’ll eat it, and you’ll like it” – but I also never really thought of them as particularly stern or rigid. I grew up in an open-minded and reasonably democratic household, one which encouraged us to challenge convention and authority.

But my sons get away with stuff that I could have only dreamed of as a young boy, and it makes me wonder – what, and where, are the new lines? How far have we wandered along the spectrum of permissiveness? Are most parents at some shade of burnt umber or have we strayed into the subtle gradation between indigo and violet?

A while back I wrote about the seemingly recent phenomenon of parents wanting to be BFFs with their kids. I was fairly scathing in my condemnation. And while I stick by my original position, I constantly waver on the thin knife blade of lenience, afraid to slice both myself and my children with one misstep in either direction.

Tonight our 3 year-old, while we were upstairs draining the bath and getting their pajayjays ready, apparently got frustrated with the picture he was drawing and vented his grievances by taking a red marker to our new sofa.

I think I handled it well. I mean, you can totally get by without the little finger of your left hand, right? No, really, I was remarkably calm, I think, and so was my wife. We explained – reasonably calmly – that such retaliatory projection upon innocent living room furniture was unacceptable.

What struck me was his utter lack of fear, his almost complete lack of contrition. I’m pretty sure that when I was a kid, in a similar situation, I would have been soiling my pajayjays. He fears us not, it would seem, and a large part of me sees that as a good thing. The other part of me looks at the spreading red stains on the sofa and wishes that he would fear us a bit more.

Well no, not fear us, but fear the consequences of his actions, because they would be clear and immediate.

There are accidents, and then there are willful acts of destruction. There’s no doubt that they should certainly be treated differently. Fair enough, and that’s perfectly clear to me. But when our kids cause destruction, either unintentionally in the regular course of being kids or recklessly in the throes of childish fury, what’s the best course of action, which side of that knife should you slide down?

It’s a judgement call each time, I think. The best I can do is hope that I’m making the right decision at the time, and not fall too far to one end or the other of the spectrum. I don’t want to be midnight blue all the time, but nor do I want to glow nuclear crimson either. I am a fairly permissive parent, I think. According to my own narrow and selective view of my childhood, my own set of values, and my daily interaction with my kids. But you know what? Occasionally my kids need to be Matted.

3 thoughts on “Well Machiavelli, I Want to Be Loved AND Feared

  1. I think you answered your own question here. Your Dad, who was more strict than you, nevertheless left a positive influence on your childhood. You needed to fear him. Not in the “mortal terror” definition of the word, but in a way that taught you respect. I have three children, 7-5-3, and I decided early on that I would not hesitate to raise my voice, on occasion, if needed. In their eyes, I’m a super Dad who loves to have fun with them, but at the flip of a switch they know I’m also a Dad who has certain expectations of them…and they accept and respect that (so far, anyway). It’s easy to be their buddy, but much harder to be a great parent & role model. Fantastic post. Thank you for sharing.


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