Saturday, December 4, 2010

What Happens to Bad Boys

I was at the base hospital a few weeks ago in the waiting room of the women's wellness clinic. I was sitting in the far corner of the room waiting to be called for my appointment, reading a textbook I'd brought with me so I could plan for the upcoming quarter, but a little family caught my attention and I didn't end up getting anything done. The little family consisted of Mom, who was holding a newborn daughter; Dad, a tech sergeant with some kind of brace on his lower leg; and their son, a cute little guy who was about three years old.

Little Guy was playing over in the other corner at the plastic table and chairs put there for just that reason. He'd taken the fat, yellow chairs and tipped them on their sides around the table. He wasn't making any noise. The only other people waiting were two separate women on the other side of the room who were engrossed in their magazines. I noticed Little Guy when he called to his dad and asked him to come over and sit down at the table with him. He was a cutie with dark hair and eyes, very earnest about his game. Dad tried to ignore him, but he persisted. Finally Mom said something sharp to Dad and he went over there.

"Set the chairs up like they're supposed to be," he said.
"Daddy, come and sit here with me." Little Guy smiled up at him, happy with his game. He obviously wasn't reading Daddy's tone of voice.
"Put the chairs up like I told you to." Daddy's voice told me he wasn't kidding.
"Daddy, just sit here with me, OK?" Still not getting it. And not getting that Daddy's brace would have prevented his sitting on those small chairs anyway. He was just happy he'd gotten Daddy to come over and see what he'd built.
"I said set the chairs up like they're supposed to be. Do it now!" Daddy grabbed a chair and slammed it upright by the table. And the other chair. Then he grabbed Little Guy's hand and marched him over by Mom. "Stand there." He sat back down in his chair and gave Mom a "There. It's done" look.

Little Guy stood there for a few minutes while his parents talked over his head. I wondered, as I often do in situations like that, if they hadn't brought a book to read to him or some paper and crayons. I guess not everybody thinks about things like that. But it does make life with small children easier if you just entertain them with something so they don't get bored.

Finally a tech called Mom's name. She handed the baby to Daddy and followed the tech back to the exam rooms. Daddy ordered Little Guy up on her chair, so he climbed up and sat on his knees facing the back. He looked over at me and gave a little wave. I smiled and waved back, then looked back down at my textbook...

 ...until I heard a soft "Hey." I looked up. Little Guy had found a piece of plastic or something tucked down in the chair. He held it up and showed it to me. I glanced over at Dad. He was watching CNN. I smiled at Little Guy and said softly, "Whatcha got?"

He gave me a coy look and hid the plastic behind his back. I looked surprised and asked, "Where did it go?"

He shrugged and laughed. I pointed to a plant against the wall. "Is it in that pot?" I said it very softly. I had a feeling we didn't want to get Daddy's attention.

Little Guy laughed and shook his head. We played the game for a while. You know the game. Same one every three-year-old likes to play: pretend to hide something while somebody else pretends to look for it.

For some reason Daddy suddenly became aware of his son. Without even looking at me he snapped, "Turn around and sit down right in that chair." Little Guy did look at me and I nodded and gave him the "better do it" look.

As Little Guy was turning around and sitting down "right" in the chair, he dropped his piece of plastic down in the side of the chair, between the cushion and the arm. And when he tried to reach down and get it, he slipped and fell, hitting his face hard against the solid wooden arm of the chair. He started crying, and I'm afraid I probably started out of my chair before I realized it wasn't my place to comfort him. Can't be a mommy to the world, right? That was Daddy's job.

"That's what happens to bad boys," Daddy snarled. "They get hurt because they're bad boys." I was surprised at the venom in his voice.

Little Guy looked over at me, still crying, a red mark blooming on his cheek. I was frozen. I probably looked like I wanted to cry too. I could feel the shame those words were meant to evoke deep in my own heart.

"Daddy, it hurts. I fell and hurt my face." Little Guy rubbed the side of his head and cried harder.

"You got hurt because you're a bad boy. Just sit there." Little Guy had already started climbing down from the chair. Once he was in motion he couldn't stop.

"Da-a-a-d-d-d-d-y-y-y-y...." He made it over to Daddy's chair and leaned against his leg sobbing. His face was bright red where he'd bumped it.

Daddy didn't touch him. He just sat there with the baby in the crook of his arm and glared at Little Guy. "Get back up on that chair and sit down and shut up." Daddy's voice was louder now, so he could be heard over Little Guy's crying, I suppose. "If you weren't a bad boy, that wouldn't have happened."

Little Guy tried for a few more minutes to get an appropriate response from the guy who was supposed to love and care for him, but only succeeded in making Daddy madder. Finally he climbed back up on the chair and sat facing front, with his little legs straight out in front of him, sobbing quietly. Daddy stared at the TV.

Now I was getting pissed. I wanted to march over there, gather Little Guy up in my arms, comfort him until he felt better and then ask, "So, sergeant, did you hurt your leg because you were a bad boy too?" Because it makes sense, doesn't it? If Little Guy got hurt because he was a bad boy, then Daddy must be a bad boy too. Right?

These days there's no telling how Dad might have gotten hurt. He might have taken his knee out playing racquetball or he might have taken a piece of shrapnel over in Iraq. One thing is for sure, he had either been to Iraq (or Afghanistan) or he would be going in the next year or both. That's just the way it is for airmen like him these days. They go over there, and usually they go more than once. It's pretty safe to guess that he didn't think he'd hurt himself because he was a bad boy. Daddy's logic was flawed. His argument failed from the very beginning, but Little Guy couldn't know that.

But that wasn't what bothered me the most. What bothered me most was that Daddy lied. People--little boys included--don't get hurt because they're bad. There are many reasons why people get hurt: carelessness, recklessness, bad luck, bad judgment...shit happens. In fact, sometimes they get hurt because they're good people and they get mixed up with bad people. But not because they're bad--especially when they're three.

Dad wasn't really concerned with why Little Guy got hurt though. He was taking an opportunity to let Little Guy know he didn't really like him, to shame him into disappearing. He was letting him know he didn't want to have to deal with him; he was a bother. So he told Little Guy, "You're bad, you deserve to be hurt, and now you're bad because you're bothering me." Or at least that was the message I got. I'm pretty sure Little Guy got it too; if not, he will.

Maybe someday when he gets older, Daddy will like his son more. Maybe once his son can play football with him--or more likely video games--he'll find some worth in Little Guy. But here's the sad thing: he might not be around by the time Little Guy gets old enough to be cool. He might go off to war and never come back. Of course he doesn't think he's going to die. Mom is the one who worries about him dying. I know because I did it for 20 years. I watched my kids' daddy fly off for weeks or months--once for a year and a half--at a time, knowing it might be the last time we saw him, praying that dark blue car didn't pull into my driveway with bad news. It's harder to be the one waiting at home. And sometimes the wait never ends.

Even if he doesn't die though, his words will live in his child's ears long after he's forgotten the incident. Little Guy adores his daddy. He trusts him--for now. He's too young to discern logical fallacies--bullshit, for the common reader--like Daddy just tossed him: you're bad, therefore bad things will happen to you. He believes everything Daddy says to him.

I realize Daddy might have reasons for being such an ass to his small son. He could be depressed, stressed, or poorly socialized himself. Maybe he wants his son to grow up tough and tearless. You know what? I don't give a shit. I really don't. I know it's hard being the parent of two small children. I know they're needy and it's constant and they don't obey immediately and they're messy and get hurt and you can't reason with them, but they're not bad. Little Guy isn't bad. Little Guy is a miracle, that's what he is.

Imagine being only three years old. Imagine only having three years of experience on this planet. And then imagine what this child has learned and accomplished in just three short years. He's learned to eat, walk, talk, eat with a spoon, put on his socks, tell the difference between red, yellow, and blue, and name things like stars and lamps and pigs. I couldn't list all that he's learned in just three years. His capacity--his potential--is so great it might as well be limitless. He is truly a miracle and one of a kind at that. How in the hell can he be bad?

And Daddy's job--no, his privilege--is to be this child's guide for a relatively short period of time. Daddy's job is to nurture Little Guy's curiosity, his creativity, his compassion, his integrity, and his ability to navigate the world. But he's not. No, I don't think this is an isolated incident for Daddy. He's like a lot of parents. He doesn't want to be bothered. He doesn't want to be bothered to engage with his son in the world so he does everything he can to make him go away. He ignores him until Little Guy needs his attention and then he tells Little Guy he's a bad boy for bumping his face on a chair arm. It would be ridiculous if it weren't so sad.

Oh, I'm sure he loves Little Guy. If you asked him, he'd say he does, right? He just doesn't want to be bothered by him. Or he only wants to be bothered by him on his own schedule. If he's like a lot of kids, Little Guy will be raised by electronic babysitters so his parents don't have to do the hard--and incredibly rewarding--work of helping him learn as much about his world as he can.

I know this little rant sounds judgmental, but I do have compassion for other parents. Really I do. I know how difficult raising children can be. I wasn't, and I'm still not, a perfect parent. I have what I call "Bad Mommy" stories, and I don't tell them with pride. Yeah, there's that word again. Bad. I guess maybe I got the same message as Little guy, huh? Even as an adult, I'm not allowed to make mistakes or I'm a bad person. Those messages get so deeply ingrained it's hard for some of us to ever find our own worth in the world.

By the time I was called back to the exam room by the tech, Little Guy was sitting quietly in his chair, doing absolutely nothing. As I walked behind his chair, I leaned down just barely and said, "I'm sorry you got hurt." I smiled at him as I walked past, but he just glanced up with sad eyes and then looked back down. He didn't smile back this time. It wasn't really my sympathy he wanted. Daddy just stared at CNN while the baby slept in the crook of his arm.


  1. Your writing is one of my favorite things in the world. You have a way of beautifully breaking down details and emotions that I also think about, but don't quite know how to describe. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Wow, powerful stuff and very well articulated! I wish you would print it out and give it to the nurse or receptionist at the office and ask them to put it in the mother of Little Guy's file so that she and her husband could read a stranger's reactions to thier family. Yeah, it may not go over well, but it may plant a seed.

  3. This brought tears to my eyes, Carol! I love the way you see and hear the stories in what many people probably don't even pay attention to. Makes for some pretty powerful writing.