Monday, June 22, 2009

The Beginning Of The End For 'Scary Dad'?

There's a personal trade-off in raising kids that I find enormously difficult. I'm not the only one; it's apparent that Natalie finds it even more confronting, which isn't surprising given the nature of her work and her personality. I've been carrying this one for nine years now, and it's never for an instant grown easier.

The problem is that small children don't think ahead very well. For example, one is likely to come around the corner to the bathroom and discover that the Mau-Mau (age 2) is trying to shave her legs like mum, with a little two-blade disposable razor. Okay, that one's not life-threatening, but it did result in a stinging cut to her leg, to match the one she gave herself on the hand on a previous occasion.

A more crucial example: heading down to the chook-pen with Younger Son, then aged just barely four. He spotted the tiger snake before I did -- it slithered onto the path between us, basically. He did the right thing and alerted me, and I told him in the scariest voice I own to "Freeze!"

And he did. Solid. Didn't move a muscle. The snake wasn't interested in either of us at all, and without any motion to attract its attention, it went on its way harmlessly. But it passed no more than a metre in front of the little guy... and he stayed perfectly still.

With small children, sometimes you absolutely have to have immediate, unquestioning obedience.

Now I'd be absolutely delighted if anybody offered me a reasonable alternative, but the best I've been able to come up with for nine years is simply being scary when necessary. Big, angry, fierce, and scary - the kind of thing that immediately shuts down small children's desire to inquire and rebel and play games.

It's been important on many occasions. Smaller Son messing with electrical outlets. The Mau-Mau trying to climb the protective grating around the wood fire. Elder Son reaching up to grasp at the top of the stove -- every time, I've played Scary Dad at them and potential disaster has been warded off.

There are lesser occasions aplenty, too. Natalie is having a lot of trouble with the Mau-Mau lately - which one expects from a three-year-old. The little one is refusing her time-outs under the stairs in the laundry, and refusing orders to curb her more egregious tantrum behaviours -- but only when those orders come from Natalie.

The reason is simple: when the Mau-Mau took her little wooden chair and started pounding it against the inside of her bedroom door in a fit of rage, I yanked the door open, took the chair away from her, swatted her backside and roared at her.

Scary Dad is emphatic when small children really misbehave. He acts immediately, first by ending the offending behaviour, and then by ensuring the child in question understands the behaviour is absolutely unacceptable and not to be repeated. Grrr! No more! Grrr!

The Mau-Mau hasn't tried the chair thing since. And if I send her to her room, or under the stairs -- off she goes. But that doesn't make me feel any better about the tears and the sobs and the looks of horror.

I'd like to believe in an alternative. But Natalie is a natural-born listener and negotiator. It's the thing that makes her a top-notch GP. And she can't bring herself to be sharp-edged and emphatic -- so the Mau-Mau knows that after the first request to stop, there will be another, and perhaps another. And even once the order to go under the stairs is given, there will probably be a second order, and certainly there will be time for a cranky small girl to stamp her foot and shout rudely and declare I'm not going!

Scary Dad doesn't allow those options. You do it the first time, or the consequences get worse.
I do not like having to be Scary Dad. I believe rewarding good behaviours works better than punishing unwanted behaviours. I believe in talking things through. I believe that the best means of extinguishing undesired behaviours is simply to give them no reward at all, understanding that even angry attention can be a 'reward' to a child seeking notice.

But sometimes, you get a three-year-old smashing furniture against the walls and doors. And I worked too fucking hard stripping that door, sanding and varnishing it, and plastering that goddam room. And more: sometimes it's not a chair and a door. Sometimes it's a tiger snake on the path.

I still don't like being Scary Dad.

Today is Elder Son's ninth birthday. Yesterday I had to bawl him out for his behaviour in the morning, and I found myself putting on my Scary Dad face, and it bothered hell out of me. Today I sat him down and we had a long talk. I told him I didn't want to be Scary Dad any more. I told him why I still have to do it sometimes with his brother, and a little more often with his sister -- but I told him that I really, really don't want to do it any more with him.

He's nine. I find it hard to believe that, to be honest -- save that the bone-weary tiredness I feel can only come from nine years of childrearing, I think. He's nine, and he's smart. He's still careless, and he can still act thoughtlessly, but he can be reasoned with, and negotiated with, and for at least a year, probably more, it simply hasn't been necessary to play the scary bully.

Elder Son listened carefully. I think he understood. I don't think he either wants or needs the apparently scary dad any more, and hopefully, in sitting down and acknowledging that and in discussing what I need from him in terms of responsibility and co-operation, he'll recognize that he's being treated with respect -- and maybe he can return some of that. At least, to the limits of nine-year-old capacity, and that's as much as I can ask.

I really want to stop being the scary guy. It's not fun. It never was.


  1. Yup.

    There is a lot to hate to about parenthood, and for me it all comes down to being the bad cop. Well, mostly. The sleeplessness, filth, chaos, financial shock, stress and so on aren't much fun either. But the scary dad thing, yeah. I hate it.

    Being the stay at home parent I am often the one who does the roaring and bellowing and punishing and I fucking hate it. There are times when I feel that 80% of parenting is saying 'no' and times when you don't just say 'no' your roar it like a fucking grizzly, just before you start swiping little people with your big grizzly paws.

    But what alternative is there? Kids running around the house, slamming doors? Sure, you could take time to do the triple PPP positive parenting bullshit, but if so you'll also want to leave some time for packing severed fingers into an ice bag, and staunching the blood flow, and organzing the ambulance and so on and on and on.

    The trouble is, of course, that the grizzly bear can take over, getting off the leash and running around the house terrorizing everyone when a simple growl might have done the job.

    I dont know where it ends or when. But presumably it must at some point. Because we can't keep this act up forever. As necessary as it is, it's hateful.

  2. Empathise strongly Flinty - my lad is still at the stage where on certain occasions only pulling angry bear faces and roaring at him can stop him doing things he shouldn't, either for his own health or our sanity. NZ has anti-smacking laws which mean that's about all you're permitted to do in the pursuit of behavioural correction. I don't enjoy it but I figure there's not many other options when calm reasoning and logic-based bartering fall over. As they do fairly early in the piece when dealing with a 2 1/2 year old and the Supernanny Big Book Of Cliched Parenting Stunts falls over. I hope - and I trust - that the stage comes when I won't have to be the neighbourhood thug/bully/standover man.

  3. Dirk - RE the whole parenting thing, thank you for going 1st. Really.

  4. I haven't reached this point of parenting yet, but it is not that far away. Our little monster has just discovered that yelling makes people give you back the inappropriate thing you were playing with.

    I believe scary Dad is a neccesity of all the reasons you have outlined, even at the toll it takes on Dad. We had even scarier Mum at my house. 6ft tall, wooden spoon tucked into apron and faster than a striking cobra scary Mum. So scary we still call her Atilla the Mum.

    The thing you do that my parents also did was having the rational discussion at a later time. Scary Dad/Mum without explanation is one thing, but scary Dad/Mum that is later explained is something else.

    Anyway, guess I better start practising my scary dad faces.

  5. Doesn't always have to be dad too, my mum, a pretty small woman, had the fear over me and my mates. My best freind always claims having her as a teacher in year six was the scariest year of his education.

  6. Congrats on Elder Sons Birthday.

    My parents were the same deal, except Mum was the Scary one and Dad was a pushover. Mind you, Dad wasn't there very much so there was no reason to really listen to him at the time and he was afraid to raise his hand to us kids. I can't remember a time that Dad would.
    Mum however, might give one or two yells then pull out the belt on us.

  7. The two I remember, from having both examples in the house, was having levels and boundaries. Simplifications here, but still -

    Dad didn't have levels, he went from introverted poor communicator to raging bull. So you couldn't figure out what he wanted, and when he went off it wasn't fair or logical and you couldn't give him what he wanted because you just didn't know.

    Mum had levels. There was chatter, advice, command, and imperative with threat. Chatter was just banging on about a topic with no consequence. Prattling on. Advice was where mum thought she had a good idea, but it was still your choice. Command was where you had to do it or cop the consequences. Imperative with threat were short sharp sentences with a threat/ promise included.

    I'm not a parent, but I use the same levels, and I use them with with adults and children.

    The other one is try as hard as you can to never threaten, only promise. Kids have exceptional rat cunning and once they know they have you breaking your threats ( promises of bad results ) it takes forever and dangerous consequences to bring that trust back.

    Snake/ Kill example - you need to have a level "Stop right now or you are dead" and never waste it on something inappropriate.

  8. I don't have children so I can't commiserate but I had parents and they were retarded. I wish mine would've had sense usually and reserved acting like fools for when it was truly deserved, such as yourself.

    Sounds like your raising respectful, well-balanced human beings and I have no doubt that your sons will have to be "scary dads" themselves one day. Show me a kid that doesn't need their ass whipped sometimes and I'll show you a television sitcom. They don't exist.

  9. My sympathies and understanding.

    When he was six months old I wanted to use behavioral conditioning that would paralyze his voluntary muscles when I used a certain key word, delivered at a certain frequency.

    My reason for living said No.

    Years later I have caught her looking and I can tell she was thinking, perhaps she was a trifle hasty.

  10. I chain my kids to the tree in the back yard when they fully give me the shits.

    ...rolled up paper works....just threatening them.

    You eventually cave in with after an hour of barking.

    ...and then feed them dry food only just to get the final say.

  11. OK, I had a series of Kill me, hurt like fuck laughs at your post, then roared even more having read JB's comments and to be honest, I still have a shit eating grin and random fits of laughter. So many truths have just been spoken by both of you it is simply not funny.

    I have no medals on the shelves to say I am a good or great or even classify me as a competent father, but here is my take on the whole gig, given I also have two boys of a slightly older age, 16 ( 17 this year) and just turned 14.

    Is being the big bad wolf tiresome, FUCK YES and I can ay the odd animated discussion with the other half has also resulted, along the lines of " How about YOU tell'em off for once".

    That BIG BAD GRIZZLY effin bear JB, can, when wound up into a rage run amok in the house. that’s not, putting kids through walls, but its, MOVE THIS, pick that up, get off the god dam XBOX, Right THE FUCK NOW!...MOVE!. And at the end off all this, whether they be a one off, or the Mount St Helens Blow ya fucking top hour long rage, YOU STILL FEEL LIKE A ROYAL BASTARD AT TIMES and it’s a fucking low feeling, they don’t put that in their, “ Lets raise a perfect fucking kid HANDBOOK EITHER.

    I hate, positively hate being the fucking bad guy, but at times having the kids FREEZE, instantly, when required, without hesitation is one of the best skills to impart, for reasons you have already pointed out Dirk, it applies to CARS and crossing roads and fires and Christ knows what else.

    Explaining to the kids after you have chewed them out, more than you should have, feeling as guilty as fuck, is some say part of parenting. Well IMHO, the can stick that one up their arse, it sucks, fuck-loads, but a times they push you a long way.

    The last twelve months, have possibly been the best with the kids, in general as a pair, the levels of fighting have dropped and i mean dropped significantly. Lately, that’s the last 4 or so months, the two boys have not had a fight and that is kinda scary, but by jesus it bloody good as well.

    I think from about 12 onwards they simply improve and now the eldest is nearly 17, well it pretty good all round. I still do, on occasion have to raise the hackles a bit, but nowhere near like it used to be.

  12. Thanks, folks. It's nice to let it out, and listen to feedback.

    Bart -- your comment on levels is good. I try very hard never to ratchet up a level without fair warning. That can be a difficult thing to assess, at times. I sent the Mau-Mau to her room this evening because I saw her stand on the arm of the couch preparatory to leaping off. There was no prior warning because -- well, for at least a month now I've been working on "don't climb up and jump off of the couch". She KNOWS already, and she knew damned well why she'd been given a red card, even as she howled and wept her way into her bedroom.

    EnnZedd's nosmacko law can go to hell. Corporal punishment is rare in this house, and it's restricted to the gluteal region, but it represents a desperately invaluable level of censure without which it would be damned difficult to achieve anything. Elder Son hasn't put himself in the way of a swat for... at least two years now, I think. Younger Son may well be on that track too, though his temperament is more uneven. But the Mau-Mau still likes to do things like slam chairs into doors, and so occasionally she gets a swat on the butt. It's legal here, and a damned good thing too.

    But I'm really glad to be moving past the 'Scary Dad' thing, and the sooner it's over completely, the happier I will be.

  13. My girl has learnt perserverance and manipulation because her Dad (my ex) makes a call then weakens. She can nag me for hours to no avail. Takes mucho patience grasshopper.

  14. I don't have any Scary Dad experience so I'll just have to say that all of you Dads have my sympathy.

    I cannot believe Elder Son is now nine. I remember a very nervous Dirk Flinthart shooting me an email along the lines of "We're off to the hospital! Nat's in labor!"

    This makes me feel old.

  15. And Happy Birthday to Elder Son!!! :D

  16. Anything that will make your children stronger, smarter, healthier, and more loving/protective of others can be acceptable. I know you're the type to balance the scales, praising and rewarding your children when they are caught in positive moments. Love really does hurt everyone involved, but it is always worth the effot. You're a good dad - based upon the writings you've posted. Good work...



  17. many happy returns for the elder son thing

    Mate it really does surprise me that your 'Scary Dad' act works, afterall your size, demeanor and hairstyle all scream cream puff!!!

    I can though see where you're coming from (even though I'm childless), also the facft that you are ALWAYS (or pretty much so) there does mean that in your kids minds you are the boss and your word is law. Natalie is always going to have problems (no matter how is she is naturally) because she just doens't have the psychological footprint in their minds. Thems the breaks with her work.

  18. Reducing a small child to tears sucks immensely. I too hate it (oh god I hate doing it to my littlest bloke who just turned four) - but there are times when a hard lesson must be taught and learned. Particularly when they just are not listening (as three and four year olds are wont to do). And it does get better. My other three sons (soon to be 14,13 and 12) can be reasoned with, or just a stern word at worst will bring them into line...mostly!

    One thing I do after being Scary Dad, and once everyone has calmed down, is explain in clear and controlled tones why I did what I did, and what the lesson to be learned is. It eventually works I think.

  19. First time I shaved my legs I did it with my father's old style razor that had a real blade in it and you had to screw shut. It was wide open. I was very careful though and didn't cut myself but I was older...still.

    Tough love is necessary at times and you're the best dad I know. I still have and watch the DVD you sent of you and Talleyn in bed reading and him hiding in the closet and looking for Easter eggs. Nine years old now. Unfathomable.

  20. My dad tried immensely to avoid being Scary Dad, so when he did act pissed, or stern, we knew he was serious. And when he made a decision, he never caved. But, we lived in as non-threatening an environment as you can imagine. No wild animals, no poisonous snakes, and as long as we knew A, don't talk to strangers, and B, stay the hell out of open manholes (the sewer access), we had a good chance of making it to adulthood.

    I often think there's no way my dad had it this hard, raising his kids, but if my kids are anything like I was at that age, I'm surprised my dad wasn't a closet drinker.

  21. Steve... if you're situation is anything like mine, you were probably even worse than your kids. I'm sure I was a hell of a lot more frustrating than Elder Son!

  22. When I was 7, I found a book of matches and tried to set fire to my neighbors shrubbery. Thank GOD it was alive, healthy, very green, and wouldn't have caught fire if I used a blowtorch and a gallon of gasoline.

    So you PROBABLY have a point, my friend. My eldest is 10 and hasn't done anything that insanely stupid.

    (PS....I was caught by another neighbor who watched me the entire time....she told me to go home and tell my mother what I did, or she would tell her. Did I? Oh HELL no. And neither did my neighbor. But did I ever do that again? Again, HELL no).