Not a day has gone by in the last several weeks that I haven’t felt like a failure as a parent.
I don’t mean failures in the little things, like I forgot to pack lunch for my daughter until the moment we had to leave for school and I scrambled quickly to shove anything into her bag so she wouldn’t starve during the day. Or when I took my son to help me re-shelve books at the library and instead he pulled the 599s off the shelf and then pushed a stack of third grade art off of one of the tables. “Is destructor leaving?” the librarian jokingly asked when I finally told him it was time for us to go. I mean the big failures, where I missed an opportunity to teach my kids something, or where I missed demonstrating through my own actions how they to act like an adult.
The Big Bite
The other day, just as m and I were getting ready to leave for her swim practice, j bit his sister. Mom and I were in the garage so we didn’t witness the bite, but we did hear the aftermath. The girl’s wail started as a small cry and rose to a high pitched crescendo, a scream that probably startled her grandparent’s neighbors in Arizona. I sighed. Inside I found m rubbing her arm and tears racing down her cheeks.
“He bit me,” she cried, barely able to get the words out.
Standing next to her, he looked up at me, eyes wide full of both innocence and devilishness.
“Did you bite her?” I asked.
My son talks a lot, but he hasn’t quite gotten the hang of articulation yet. He says words, but we can’t yet understand them. We know that he understands us, though. He follows simple commands, tells us he loves us (“I wuv oo”), will go out of his way to find a trash can if I tell him to throw something away. He also knows right from wrong, knows that biting is wrong.
But of course he’s only two, and in a moment of emotion a two-year-old communicates in any way he can.
“Did you bite her?” I asked again, my voice rising. He lifted up a set of keys to show me. I took them from him and picked him up. “Did you bite her?” I yelled. I pointed to m’s arm and then I pointed to her mouth. He stared blankly at me, at m. She was still crying. I took him upstairs to his room, getting more and more frustrated as I climbed the steps. By the time we got to his bed he was crying, too. He had begun to understand that he had done something wrong.
Parenting’s Dark Side
I dropped him into his bed and he lay there crying. “No biting,” I screamed at him. “No biting.” I touched his mouth and shook my head. “No biting,” I yelled again. He was crying, I was yelling, and the more he cried, the more I yelled, and the more I wanted to yell. I found myself caught up in that anger in that moment, all my frustrations suddenly bubbling to the surface. I wanted to bite him back. I wanted to tie him to the bed and not let him out for a month. I wanted to put a pillow over his mouth and let him chew through that. I wanted to shake him until he stopped crying even though I knew that it would only make him cry more but in that moment that’s what I wanted, to hear him cry more.
Instead I left him there, turned and walked away. I got in my car with m and we drove to the pool for her swim lesson and my Water Boot Camp class (it’s much harder than it sounds). On the drive I explained to m that j bites when he finds no other way to communicate his frustration. That biting is his emotional reaction to frustration at something, or anger at something. “We all do it,” I told her. “I just did it, too. I got angry when he bit you and so I reacted out of that anger and yelled at him. I don’t think the yelling helped, though.” By the time we got to his room he knew he had done wrong, and my yelling wasn’t doing anything to teach him not to bite anyone. “All of us,” I told my daughter though I was referring mostly to myself, “have to be very patient with him, especially when he does something like that.”
She told me she was only trying to show him how to use the keys he was holding, which meant that she was trying to take them from her. So the scene suddenly made sense in my head. He had these keys in his hand and m was trying to take them from him. He didn’t want her to take them so he bit the hand that was trying to grab them.
I talked to M about it later, about my frustrated reaction, and about how terrible I felt about yelling, and how I didn’t think yelling helped. “When we taught him not to pull the cats’ tails we didn’t yell at him. We taught him to be gentle,” I said. “Maybe we need to try the same thing with the biting and hitting.”
For me it was an example of a parenting fail, a missed opportunity, a moment of weakness when I let my own emotions get the better of me. Self reflection, though, is a good thing. And even out loud, with my wife, with my daughter, and even with my son. Talking it out, talking through the event, helped her understand it, and helped me understand how I could do better next time.
Finding the Good
These are the lessons no one teaches parents, the dark side of parenting that we all stumble through to figure out. Children are wonderful and beautiful and they fill my life and my world with so much joy, so much happiness, that I can’t imagine my life without them. And yet sometimes I find myself so completely maddened by everything they do that what I really want to do is tie them to their beds so I don’t have to deal with them. Or shove them out a window. Or just muzzle them. As a parent that can be the hardest lesson of all, learning to love them and to show them love even when they are acting like spoiled children, or evil little dictators. Learning to show disappointment and dispassion even as inside what I want to do is scream and shout and throw things, especially my kids.