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As an Irish Catholic I feel guilty and unsure about pretty much everything in my life. That said, there have been a couple of exceptions — such as how I felt about my two kids and how I was going to raise them. Back in my day, growing up as a Catholic girl, going to Catholic school, hanging out with Catholic friends and relatives, and being at the mercy of Catholic-style discipline, I learned how not to raise my kids.
Our parents were convinced that if they ever, ever threw us kids a compliment, we would get "big heads" — which meant that we would become intolerable, conceited asses that no one (especially God) would want to have anything to do with. Feeling good about yourself was not acceptable, and you better not for one second think you're good-looking — because then you were a real sinner.
As a result I grew up certain that I was ugly enough that people stopped on the street just to look. It really was a bit of a problem but not something I could talk to anyone about because that would be vain, and vanity was a sin. To add insult to injury, I had red hair — which everyone knew meant you had a terrible, uncontrollable temper that had to be treated very aggressively. The nuns especially had real difficulty with the red mane and assumed that anyone sporting one was nothing but trouble. My mom gave me my first self-help book when I was six years old in the early sixties, when the self-help industry was barely off the ground. It was a book for kids called I Have a Temper.
This did nothing but aggravate me further and drive me to slam my head against the wall, slam doors, and generally fuel the preconceived notions being thrown my way. It's true that redheads can be pretty hotheaded, but I wasn't going to admit it then. Punishments back in those days were quite something. We were hit with a yardstick — known as just "the stick" — and getting hit on Sundays after Mass was pretty much a sure bet. Out of us four kids, somehow I was the one who managed to find myself in the lineup every week. I swore to myself during those very tragic moments (I was a drama queen even then) that I would never, ever, EVER treat my children that way. Not only would I compliment the hell out of them, but I would never hit them. Well, it was true I didn't (almost never); instead I took punishment to a new level and employed psychological warfare — so much for evolution.
I have always prided myself on being a fair, yet firm and loving parent. With the exception of a couple of years when the kids were teens and I was absolutely full-out menopausal (or perimenopausal or whatever you want to call it), I think I have been incredibly effective with my kids and in some instances with other people's kids. In spite of my current obsession with self-improvement books, I never really felt I needed help when the kids were younger because I truly believed I was born to parent and that my instincts were right on the money.
Despite the fact that my two delightful offspring have made it a hobby to tell anyone who will listen how completely ridiculous and totally ineffective I was with tots and teens in times of trouble, I still maintain that I was one of the greats at coming up with unbelievably creative punishments that taught invaluable life lessons. As a small example, I believed that if they bit, they should be bitten back. Now, I have since seen the likes of Dr. Phil speak out vehemently against such draconian measures, but I question whether ol' Dr. Phil ever actually got bitten in the face by a little creature with vampire-like fangs, and if he had, what he really would have done.
I'm sure I should have sent Maddy or Ian on a time-out; or asked that they spend time on the naughty mat; or spoken to them in my indoor voice, asked them nicely not to break Mommy's skin again, and to express themselves with words. Whatever! I don't have a clue how any mother can do anything but raise a complete savage with those limitations — it may not be popular, but from where I sat, it was war every day, and I had no intention of losing.
One of my shining moments occurred one day when I was grocery shopping with my kids — Ian was ten and Maddy was eight — and my best friend's two kids, Lauren and Patrick. They were always a dangerous unit because Lauren, who was also eight, could teach Maddy things that good old Ian, being a sweet, naive male, had never even thought of.
I had recently split up with my husband and was into my second year of fending for myself. At any given time, our basement was backed up knee-deep in sewage, or the pipes had burst, or the kids had pulled the bathroom sink off the wall, causing a flood, or the front lawn was being dug up because of the sewage problem, or the utilities were being cut off because I couldn't pay the bills. Suffice it to say, my life wasn't going so smoothly, but we had love — which, of course, every one of my favorite songs said was enough. Career wise, I had been working for a talent agency. Unfortunately, however, six months into my stint my paychecks began bouncing. Of course, that triggered the bouncing of all the checks I had written that month — further destroying my already pathetic credit rating. Oh well, it really wasn't the end of the world because my boss, along the way, had decided he wanted to give me a makeover. He'd bought me incredibly expensive clothes and paid for a body wave that would make any self-respecting eighties chick green with envy. With my hot, post-divorce body and my new wardrobe and hair, I really couldn't get that down over the state of my life. And on top of it all, I was able to sign on some of my boss's actors (all completely crazy and neurotic but moneymakers nonetheless) and start my own talent agency. After all, I had six months of work experience — how hard could it be? Well, six years, a million cigarettes, ten thousand beers, and thirty pounds later, I was living proof that it wasn't quite as simple as I thought it would be....
But back to the kids. I'm at the store with the four kids who, when together, were total maniacs complete with dirty faces and badass attitudes. When together, we had been thrown out of restaurants several times, and we certainly had our respective communities under the impression the kids were going to grow up to be felons — not that far off as it turned out, at least not for the darling girls.
At the grocery store the boys were running around like banshees. I'm still not clear on what they were trying to accomplish, but I'm sure it had something to do with war and intrigue. The girls, however, were being a lot quieter and were loitering around the candy bins. I warned them to keep their grimy paws out of those things and threatened them within an inch of their lives if they didn't. I ran over to another aisle to get something — probably a large box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner. (Yes, I was a very bad mother for not feeding the younguns something organic, but what the hell was I supposed to do when I was so broke?)
I was running around the place like an idiot with my eyes peeled for the four hoodlums when I discovered the girls huddled in the corner of the bulk-bin area with their backs to me. I knew instinctively that some crime had been committed. I decided to creep up behind them so I could startle them and hopefully get the truth out of them without too much torture — because frankly I was kind of tired that day and just wanted to get back home and chill out. Sure enough, they were whispering like thieves and cooking up some kind of scheme. I called their names sharply, and they turned around with their faces absolutely covered in candy and sugar; they looked like they had been dragged through a vat of the stuff. They had it all over their snowsuits, hair, and hands.
In my firmest voice I demanded to know what was going on, and they had the total cheek to look at me with their big eyes and say, "Nothing!" I asked them if they had been stealing candy from the bins, and they looked at me as though they were insulted that I would dare to insinuate such a thing. They were unbelievable! I pointed out that they were covered in the evidence, and they looked terrified and knew they were busted. When they told me that they had only taken one each and that they were really, really sorry, I told them that it was out of my hands and that I had no choice but to turn them into the authorities.
I took them over to the store manager. Luckily, she was as twisted as I was and played right along with me. Even better, she was big and ugly and mean looking. I explained the whole sordid situation to her, while their candy-covered faces stared up at her (they really did look pretty cute), absolutely terrified that they were going to be doing some hard time. She and I discussed at length the prospect of calling the police and having them take the kids into the station for fingerprinting and mug shots. Fantastic! We speculated about whether they would go to prison and concluded that they probably wouldn't because of school and stuff. We also figured they were too young and inexperienced to be able to make license plates or do laundry in jail.
After a lengthy discussion and a couple of fake moves toward the phone, the manager decided she would let them "walk" this time, but God help them if they ever tried anything like that again. Boy, was I proud that they had learned such an important lesson at such a young age, and it was all thanks to me. These girls would never steal again.
I then took the perps and their male counterparts home and made the girls do chores all day long. It worked out really well for me, since I had a ton of laundry that needed folding, floors that needed scrubbing, and carpets that needed vacuuming. The pair of them looked like a couple of convicts and were clearly sinking their teeth into the whole psychology. Their posture was hunched, their faces were white, and they were bonding in a way that only two prisoners can. It was a long day for those two knuckleheads, but the house was clean and I was standing proud and tall. Good job.
Victory was mine. Copyright © 2008 by Joan Lambur
Posted April 18, 2008