Sunday, May 18, 2008

To Hit or Not to Hit

My wife and I are parents of a 4-year-old boy, and we’re faced with the duty to discipline him.

Some parents spank their kids to discipline them. Some won’t even yell at their children. My parents put the fear of God in us kids the same way “Jaws” director Steven Spielberg made his audience fear the shark in the movie; not seeing the danger and imaging it is often more terrifying than the danger itself.

The shark in my childhood home came in the form of a wooden spoon. I’m of Italian heritage, and one of the heirlooms Italian women pass down through the generations is the wooden spoon. Once the oldest child (male or female) of the family marries and reproduces, the woman (or the man’s wife) inherits the wooden spoon so that she can make the family sauce. And so that she can use the instrument to beat the tar out of her kids if they get out of line.

My siblings and I knew of the dreaded wooden spoon. We’d heard the stories of how it temporarily crippled our aunts. So we stayed in line so that we wouldn’t have to see the thing -- except on Sundays when Mom was making the sauce.

And while Mom occasionally threatened us kids with the wooden spoon, we eventually learned that we would have to commit murder before she’d ever take it out. Mom was somewhat lenient.

When my younger brother and I were over at friend’s house playing and it was time to come home, my mother would call us on the phone and tell us to come home right away. That meant that my brother and I had another half hour to an hour to get home before she’d threaten to hit us with the wooden spoon, at which point we’d promptly respond to her request.

Dad didn’t need to threaten to hit us with the wooden spoon, and we always immediately responded to his requests the first time around. When my father wanted us home, he’d walk all of two steps out the front door onto the porch and whistle for us, even if we were on the other side of town. If we weren’t home in time to shut the door behind him as he walked back into the house following his whistle, he’d kill us, plain and simple. We always made it home to shut the door for Dad.

My father let us kids know when he was unhappy with our behavior -- without saying a word. Like the silent gun fighters in those old spaghetti western movies, you’d know from a look or slight gesture that you were going to die if you pushed your limits. We never pushed our limits with Dad.

Today, my son is beginning to test his limits, and push them as far as he can. As a means to combat that kind of behavior, my wife has my family’s wooden spoon and the recipe to threaten the boy, and I’ve adopted my father’s secrets to scare the living daylights out of him without laying a hand on him. And it all works. Our son stays in line.

And then came last week, when my son was misbehaving over at a friend’s house. The adults in the house called to tell me what he was doing wrong. Over the phone, I couldn’t give the boy that look that usually makes him get back in line. I felt somewhat handicapped.

As an Italian-American, who can’t even communicate without using hand gestures, trying to discipline my son over the phone was like trying to play a videocassette in a DVD player. I even tried threatening the boy with the wooden spoon. He wasn’t flinching. He knew I couldn’t do anything to him over the phone.

I felt like I had failed as a parent. To this day, I would never defy my father -- even over the phone -- and here’s my son, only 4 years old, and he called my bluff.

Obviously it’s against the law to kill my son for bad behavior. But there’s nothing that says I can’t put him up for auction on eBay.

-April 2008

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