My parents didn’t do too much in the way of bribery with us as kids. It was ‘eat your broccoli or you’re going to sit at that table until you fall asleep in your food’ (which I did once or twice). A good, sharp spanking was far more than an idle threat and there was the oft-used though rarely understood “Because I Said So” conversation ender. This is how things got done back in the day. Even at eight years old I sensed that “because I said so” was an impotent answer, dredged from the recesses of pure exhaustion. But it was also a line in the sand that I didn’t cross because, well, a good, sharp spanking was more than an idle threat.
When I first became a father I was still carrying my eight year old impression of ‘because I said so’ around with me. It’s the un-answer – the one you give when you don’t have a good reason or the patience to explain yourself.
After all, how much can any of us trust the judgment of people who smoked in the house, put glass bottles in the trash, fed us Spaghetti-os, let us walk – unaccompanied- to the mall, never checked us for peanut or gluten intolerance, loved Neil Sedaka and wore the occasional leisure suit.
Now I’m beginning to think their judgment was a good deal better than I gave them credit for — at least when it comes to getting your kids to obey.
I’ve spent my entire life as a parent seeing the other side of the spectrum. There’s not much as sad as a harried mom trying to have an honest-to-God rational debate with a four year old about whether or not it’s time to leave the park. Parenting, for a lot of the adults I’ve seen, is a constant stream of negotiations and appeasements.
And why do we all do this? Simple, bribery works. Every parent knows this to be true. In fact most parents needs it to be true just to get through a day. We don’t always call it bribery, of course, we dress it up in words like negotiation, reward, treat, compromise, special-something. But it all boils down to the same basic kind of coercion. Do what I’m asking you to do and I’ll make it worth your while.
It’s such an accepted part of influencing behaviour that it crops up in ever more disconcerting places in our culture. In some schools, students who improve their state standardized test scores can make $110 – in other schools the financial payoff for good grades start as early as fourth grade. Last summer, Washington DC actually paid kids to show up to summer school. This isn’t some far-flung test program, its institutional in places like Baltimore and New York. We’ve somehow become a society in which we believe our children need to be bribed into doing the basics.
I’m as guilty as anyone on this front. My wife and I have spent a lot of our kids young lives bribing them to do what we wanted. Eat this, crap here, nap now, and we’ll give you something nice. There reached a point with our kids where it was no longer a tool for guiding behaviour, it was the tool. That realization has brought me full circle on the whole “because I said so” thing.
Bribery works. But the lesson it teaches is exactly the opposite of what I need my kids to understand about occupying space on this planet. What I really need them to embrace is that you do the things you’re supposed to because they need to be done. Nothing more, nothing less. As an adult, of course, its about a hell of a lot more than just showing up or paying your bills – it’s about who you are in the world.
Now is when my kids need to start learning that acts of decency and kindness are their own reward. Self-sacrifice and altruism do not exist to get you a pat on the back or the admiration of strangers. Like it or not, every one of us makes a daily choice about which side of the ledger we are going live on. Not choosing – because you’re not being properly motivated to do so – means you’re contributing to the mountain of shit and indifference the rest of the world has to slog through every day. You have to choose to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing. You have to believe that a better world starts with a better you, every day. That has to be enough or no reward ever will be.
When it’s all said and done, if my kids need praise, reward, the promise for heaven or fear of hell to be good people, I’ve failed them.
In the mean time, finish your broccoli and pick up your room. Because I said so.
The bullets have stopped flying, the bombs are defused and one epic manhunt is over in Watertown. And as satisfying as it is to have some small amount of closure on the horrors of the last week, a chasm remains between the end of the police work and the beginning of understanding how something like this could happen. Sitting in front of the spectacle of TV news infotainment and melodrama, my brain traverses the geopolitical – I try to puzzle out the agendas and grievances that led two young men to cram nails and ball bearings into a pair of pressure cookers and then kill and maim families on a crisp Monday morning. I think in terms of indoctrination and world-view.
But when I lay in bed at night, I think like a father – I think about the more treacherous questions of how, why, and what could have been done differently for the children that eventually became these men. How much, if at all, can we lay some portion of the blame at the feet of the people brought these two murderers into the world?
I know very well that my own kids were born with distinct personalities that have nothing to do with how they’re being raised. My son, Z, is a rule follower, a negotiator, and deeply concerned about winning the approval of the authority figures in his life. Pebbles, my four year old girl, spends most of life laughing and dancing, but try to make her follow the rules and you’ll have a wailing ball of drama on your hands. This is who they are. My wife and I have tried to sand down the sharper edges of their personalities with love, reason, and patience. But – and I think every parent gets this – they are who they are and all you can really do is try to add a solid moral structure and healthy dose of responsibility to what the cosmic personality generator has handed you.
I remember having something of a small panic attack when Z came home from school with a little blood on his sleeve from a bumped lip at recess. A game of ‘Harry Potter’ had gotten a little out of hand and Z, who had insisted on being the bad guy, had gotten tackled on the pavement. But it wasn’t the blood that bothered me, it was the idea that Z wanted to be the bad guy. Was this a sign of something sinister brewing in my 6 year old? Did I need to worry that, despite all my admonitions about kindness and love, Z was attracted to the dark side? When I asked him, Z told me that the bad guy is the one that gets chase and, after all, he really loves to run. Crisis averted, for now anyway.
But surely Susan and Tom Klebold loved their son as fiercely as I love mine. Susan was, by most accounts, an engaged and involved mother. By nine years old, her son Dylan was in the gifted program at school and a regular chess partner for his father. By seventeen, Dylan was dead in the Columbine library after participating in the worst school massacre in American history.
Do his parents own part of that tragedy or are they victims of it?
Bud Welch lost his daughter when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. One night not long after, Bud saw McVeigh’s father, Bill, on TV and told a friend, “Timothy’s father’s pain has to be incredible. As best I can tell, he did everything right.” Three years after the bombing Bud sat down with Bill McVeigh and Tim’s sister Jennifer. After two hours of talking, Bud Welch went to leave. Jennifer McVeigh wrapped her arms around Bud and began to sob. Bud, thinking of his own daughter, held her and said, “Honey, the three of us are in this together for the rest of our lives.” They had all lost someone they loved and none of them could tell you precisely why it had happened.
Maybe some human beings are fundamentally broken at birth. If so, can they be course corrected by family? Straightened out by discipline? Overwhelmed by love? Can we, as parents, see this kind of thing coming, can we know the difference between a kid who’s different and a kid who’s dangerous? Do we have any chance of seeing the line between solitary and sociopathic before it’s too late? It’s hard to believe we’re helpless but it’s equally hard to pinpoint what the Klebolds or Dahmers or McVeighs might have done differently.
I suppose it’s possible that taking Dzhokhar Tsarnaev alive provides a chance of inching closer to some kind of epiphany – but I doubt it. It’s far more likely that he’ll simply be added to a long list of disaffected and destructive young men.
Like everyone that loves Boston and has agonized over this attack, I want justice. And it looks like we will get some measure of that. But what I truly want is to understand. And that, I fear, is never going to happen.