I grew up on suburban Long Island, so my childhood traumas were kept at a minimum. There was one day when I was fifteen years old, however, that will stay in my mind forever. I was working with my dad at his store and an angry and violent customer came in and started to threaten him. What made it traumatic was, until that point, I only saw my dad as popular, affable and ebullient with his peers. To see him in a situation where a stranger wanted to physically harm him was a bit too much for me to process. The episode played out without coming to violence, but I never saw my father the same way again. For the first time in my life, I had to accept that he was human and vulnerable like everyone else. It was a hard shock to my system.
What brought this memory back to me with such clarity was an incident that I experienced just this past Sunday. It was a typical, cold, rainy weekend morning for me. I picked up my two preschool age daughters and we were heading to a friend’s house for the dual purpose of a play date and a band rehearsal. On our way there, a commercial water tanker truck got behind me. Before I realized what was happening, he was only inches away from my rear bumper.
We were in a 30 mph zone, I was doing about 45 mph and before long he switched on his high beams to accompany the fact that he was ridiculously close. I was getting heated. I slowed down to about 35 mph and the truck driver began to get quite a bit more aggressive. Finally, realizing that I was endangering my children’s welfare, I pulled over to let him go by.
But he did not go by. He pulled in front of me, used his truck to block my car in and set his parking brake. Then he and his friend jumped out of the cab of the truck to come over and begin an altercation. The only way I knew to respond was to appeal to whatever sense of humanity they may have had. It was apparent to me that they were most likely under the influence of some kind of stimulant, but I brought up the fact that there were two small children strapped in car seats in the back. They glanced but continued to threaten me. My girls were obviously scared.
Somehow, I managed to diffuse the situation and it did not degrade to the point of physicality, but I was left with the weight of how I was going to emotionally digest the situation. It was right then that I remembered pretty clearly what it felt like to be a child. I knew in my heart that I was steering the ship and the way that I dealt with the aftermath was going to be very significant in my children’s lives.
Gloria, my six-year-old, kept asking what he was so mad about. I decided to use the opportunity to explain to her that sometimes people take their hurt out on other people who don’t deserve it.
“Let’s try to imagine what could have possibly happened to that guy that made him act like that.”
It got rather silly pretty quick and before we even got to my friend’s house, the laughter in the car reached uproarious levels. I was more relieved that I was able to handle that situation than the one that caused it in the first place.
Anyone with small children knows that didactic lecturing does not work with them. I realized this the first time I tried to explain the dangers of trying to ride the family dog like a horse or why I’d rather they didn’t throw their American Girl dolls into the creek in the backyard. Children relate better to kinesthetic experience. This is why the way things naturally transpired in the car was so effective.
As I was able to get some distance from that challenging morning, I began to really see it for what it was. My twenties and thirties were a maelstrom of alcohol, illicit substances and uncontrollable emotional outbursts; but don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that getting clean and sober has turned me into a spineless jellyfish. I still have more than enough “rough” around my edges to keep me from becoming a fastidious do-gooder well into my eighties. What it has done for me, however, was teach me that life, emotions and reactions never have to be binary. I was not left with a choice of being reckless and irresponsible or embarrassed about backing down in front of my kids. There existed a grey area where I could be me—a little irreverent, a little funny and slightly compassionate. Perfectly imperfect.
But this distinction only came after I stumbled quite accidentally on a better way to parent. You see, I spent so many years trying unsuccessfully to think my way into a better life when, in reality, it would’ve been a much better idea to just live my way into better thinking.