When Good Parenting Feels Bad

December 4, 2011  |  Fatherhood

Please welcome Guest Blogger PATRICK CANEDAY who authored this installment of the Hands on Dad.

You know that ogre-parent on your block that all the kids fear? The father at the supermarket who barks at his kids when they ask for candy at the checkout line? That dad at the mall who doesn’t care whether his crying daughter’s fourth grade friends get to wear booty shorts and midriff tank tops?

That’s me. The father that makes the rest of you feel pretty good about your suspect parenting skills.  And you’re welcome.

I don’t read books on childrearing, don’t take classes, subscribe to the latest “method” or belong to any parenting support groups (unless drinking cheap cabernet on the front lawn with other parents while ignoring our kids counts). No, my parenting lessons are of the unscripted and inadvertent kind; the ones that happen when good intentions land you at the bottom of a very deep rabbit hole.

I have two daughters, ages ten and eight. I call them Thing 1 and Thing 2, just not when they’re within earshot. They are 49% infuriating and 51% magically life-affirming, so I think I’ll keep them. They are both girly and emotional, brazen and wise. Thing 1 hates physical exertion, remembers everything anyone has ever said to her and will read the entire Wimpy Kid series in a weekend. Thing 2 has a future in track and field, wants to be a “famous lifeguard” someday and is already asking for the Cliff Notes to third grade.

Like most girls, they are Sensitive (yes, capital “S”). Thing 2 has a deep empathy for any suffering creature – man, worm or beast – and feels tremendous, physical guilt when she’s done something wrong. Thing 1 has a hard time handling changes in routine, crowded places and environments of overwhelming light and sound. Traits, for better or worse, I see in myself. Thanks, genetics!

Though they share DNA, they are spitefully different and demand different things from me as a so-called father. Nowhere is this better captured than on a sanity-testing trip to Disneyland, where the happiest place on Earth can turn into Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride quicker than you can say “Pirates of the Crying Children.”

Picture us – Bad Dad, Things 1 and 2, and the Foolish Woman Who Married Me – at the Magic Kingdom over the Labor Day weekend; it’s 95 degrees, late in the day, we’re sticky from one form of sugar product or another and I have a pocketful of Fastpasses. Splash Mountain was a natural choice. There’s a good chance of getting refreshingly wet and always an hour long line. But, the only part of the ride you see from the line is the final, 50-foot plunge with a log-full of riders screaming in fear for their lives. Seeing that, Thing 1 shut down, refusing to go on this joyride to certain death.

If you’ve ever been on Splash Mountain, you know it’s actually pretty tame. Except for that last drop, of course. We’d spent the day splitting into twosomes – one going on Star Tours and the other Small World – because of her resistance to coaster-like rides. So here’s the dilemma: How far should a parent push their sensitive, scared child to do something the child fears but the parent knows is perfectly safe and fun? Since I’m the guy in our house who always, and I mean always, takes a good joke or teaching moment too far, my choice was clear.

“You are going on this ride,” I commanded her. I was Darth Vader using the Force to extract information from a rebel spy.
“But I don’t want to,” she replied with tears welling in her fearful, beautiful cobalt eyes.
“It’s just a log ride. Most of it is a calm trip down a lazy river with singing, dancing animatronic critters.”
“I don’t care,” she spat. “I don’t want to go on it.” She was clinging to a railing to prevent me from dragging her through the line. Her cheeks now streaked with tears, it was time for me to bust out the truly questionable parenting tactics.
“Do you see that boy?” I said, pointing to a lad two feet shorter than her.
“He’s half your age, and he is going on this ride!”
“So, what are your friends at school going to think when they know you won’t even go on a log ride?”
I know, I know. Dr. Spock probably didn’t write a chapter on shaming your children into obedience. But, like I said, I do all I can to make other parents look really, really good.

But it worked.

Though angry, she begrudgingly agreed to go on the ride. I was thrilled with my decisive victory – and the opportunity for all four of us to go on something together other than the Dumbo ride ¬– but part of me was racked with guilt. Would this be the moment her future caseworkers isolated as the trigger for her crack addiction and porn career? The one that sent her on the path towards being “that cat lady” or a contestant on “Big Brother?” Or worse yet, the one that caused a sweet, loving, sensitive girl to resent her over-demanding father for the rest of her life?

But there was no time to worry about that. Fastpasses redeemed, we were in our log and on our way; Thing 1 burying her face in her mother’s shoulder for most of the ride. I wondered, as we clanked our way up to the precipice of the 50-foot final plunge, whether I’d gone too far this time.

At the top of the hill I looked back to see her face. And for a split-second she peered out, ashen-faced, to see what was coming our way. Then I looked forward, down five stories into the mist.

And we dropped.

After the wave crested our log and the laughter stopped, I turned back to see how she did.  Her smile said it all.

She was giggling uncontrollably, and her face was alight with newfound joy. When we got off the ride, she was ecstatic. She seemed empowered and confident at having overcome her fears; proud of herself in a way I’d never seen before.

“Can we do that again!?” she asked.

Ever since I became a parent, I feel like I make a hundred of these decisions each day; whether it’s about letting them have a treat, forcing them to do their homework before they can go out to play or not letting them stay up late even though their friends do. And I never know which mundane verdicts I hand down might be life-altering to a child with budding experience in the world.

Though my gamble paid off on Splash Mountain, I fear how many decisions I’ve already made for my children that won’t. That, for me, is the scary five-story plunge. And for this ride, there are no Fastpasses.

Patrick Caneday

PATRICK CANEDAY is an essayist, author, sad excuse for a husband and so-called father to two amazing daughters. His weekly newspaper column, SMALL WONDERS, appears in several Los Angeles area newspapers. CROOKED LITTLE BIRDHOUSE, his new book, is available on Amazon. Friend him on Facebook, contact him at patrickcaneday@gmail.com and read more at www.patrickcaneday.com.


1 Comment

  1. Another good one! Thanks for sharing. Do hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas holiday season and that the New Year brings all good things.

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