Question Authority

"You ignorant selfish lazy lying girl!" When I was growing up my mother yelled this litany often enough that I believed it until I was thirty. And yet she prided herself that she never called me stupid or ugly like her mother had.

A decade earlier, my husband Jim grew up in a household with two sets of rules. When his father, a Continental Airlines pilot, was working, Mom reigned with an understanding hand. But when Dad was home, a military-precision was required when it came to making beds, saying please, and fighting among siblings.

So when we became parents, we worried that the years of therapy we had bought ourselves might not be enough of an inoculation against hurling insults at our offspring. Though we named our son, Cope, after my great uncle we didn’t mind that this was also a useful verb in times of conflict.

The first time I lost it, Cope weighed just 11 pounds and could barely hold up his head. He was engaging in #2 of his top activities, crying, after having spent the morning practicing #1, nursing. I was thirsty, hungry, sleepy and needed to pee, yet he could not give me a break. I set him in his bouncy seat and looked square into his red scrunched face and yelled: STOP CRYING! Now my throat hurt and I was crying, too. I ran to the fridge and gnawed on a hunk of orange cheese while I sat on the toilet, my baby blaring from the kitchen.

I confessed to Jim when he got home. Yelling at our defenseless baby had not been in my plan, but I had learned something. Sometimes I had to take care of myself in order to care for him. I would not let so many of my physical needs pile up untended again. But Jim was worried. No yelling, he warned. Sometimes it happens—I reasoned—no one’s perfect!

The yelling debate reminded me, predictably, of my own mother. Once in a therapy session we’d attempted as adults, she had said incredulously, "You mean to say, you have zero-tolerance for my yelling at you!" She simply couldn’t believe it. I repeated what my wise therapist had informed me: the only reason to yell at someone was when they were in danger ("There’s a train coming!"). Now I found myself defending the merits of screaming at your children.

What got us through the next few months was a tag team approach, something our parents were not fortunate enough to have. I learned to hand off or walk away before my teapot blew. Jim remained steady, aware that this early stage of parenting was especially physically taxing on me. He encouraged me to go for a run or steal away to a coffeehouse. I learned to obey.

Our little sunflower baby grew and unfurled his petals until he became predictably and tortuously two. We learned to dread transitions of any kind. Leaving Artz Rib House one night, we followed the book. First we issued a five-minute countdown, then we gave him a choice ("you can walk out on your own or we can carry you out"). We gave him a count to five during which he could make his decision before finally grabbing him up and marching out while his protests drowned out the band. In the car, Cope refused to get in his car seat and therefore earned a time-out. In less than ten minutes we had ripped through every tried-and-true disciplinary tactic that wouldn’t permanently bruise his soul. The Worst Moment Ever was driving homeward down the freeway with Cope, finally strapped in his seat, screaming at the top of his lungs, a precocious criminal: "STOP THIS CAR NOW!"

That’s when we began Boot Camp. We didn’t make our toddler crawl through tires or climb a rope ladder, though he would have loved to. Boot Camp was the name that a friend of ours, also the mother of a willful boy, gave to a one- or two-week period of consciously enforced discipline. It was not fun for anyone. It was tiring to always offer a choice—blue socks or red ones—and a consequence. (During boot camp, parents were strict enforcers, not lazy louts who caved in with "Oh, don’t wear socks. I don’t care!") I did not always want to take the time to count to five for my young draftee to get in the car. I certainly did not want to grab him up when he failed to make a choice. Holding him tight in my arms while he screamed "I hate you, Mommeeeee!" for the infinite two minutes of time-out was not what I had in mind when I signed on for this parenting journey. But it worked. It worked so well that we soon had our sunny boy back most of the time. We all agreed that blowing bubbles, petting the cat, and driving little cars up and down the sidewalk together was a lot more fun than ultimatums, marching orders or physical restraint.

It hasn’t been easy. My husband and I have always bucked the rules. Jim avoided Vietnam by successfully defending himself as a life-long peacenik while, as a reservist, attempting to single-handedly undo the Army by intentionally misfiling the forms it was his job to process. I pinned a Question Authority button on my backpack the day I arrived at college, wore unmatched earrings and socks, and dated revolutionaries—or men who looked like they were. Naturally, we are suspicious of rules, even our own. Yet, a friend's husband -- who teaches middle-school Latin -- reminds me, the root of "discipline" is to learn. One can only learn a subject of study—be it arithmetic or chess, organic gardening or Italian cooking, within a framework. Without rules, addition is a sea of useless numbers, bugs end up eating the tomatoes, and the pasta is over-cooked.

Over the years we’ve learned that our son needs boundaries off which to bounce his ever-expanding personality. Without parameters, also known as "stupid rules," Cope would be like an astronaut floating without his tether, a colt without a corral, a spider without a web or a shopper without a credit card limit. Discipline is the form that makes the fourteen lines that bounce along, pum-pum-pum, into a sonnet. Without order, there is chaos—and hurt feelings.

Of course, we pick our battles. Weekends are "bath vacations" yet, sadly, there is no sabbatical from toothbrushing. "Holy" jeans are reserved for weekends, homework must be done before TV, at least one piece of lettuce must be eaten, and a pathway to the bed must be cleared. Yet, the bed needn’t always be made and shoes may sleep anywhere they won’t be tripped over. We try to be reasonable dictators of our tiny seven-year-old country.

Recently, we had occasion to revisit Boot Camp, an exercise we’d tossed aside once Cope attained the vocabulary and reason required for high-level negotiation. Cope has inherited his father’s dyslexia, a world view that means he understands how things like the solar system work but is hard pressed to tell "b" from "d." In order for him to not lose the huge gains he made in first grade, this summer we must require thirty minutes a day of reading and writing practice. Without discipline this task grew to amorphous proportions, encompassing trips to the bathroom, drinks and snacks, and eventually bedtime. It was time to lay down the line. We sat down with Cope and together came up with a plan. Every day, except "freaky" Friday, he would sit down at 5 p.m. We cleared off his Taos-blue desk, sharpened his Spiderman pencils, and set my watch timer. Thank you, Father Discipline, gracias, Mother Authority, for bringing balance to our lives once again. With his penchant for green hair dye, his practiced rock-n-roll sneer, and budding skateboard lust, it won’t surprise me if our boy follows in our artsy, activist, slacker steps, but he’ll do so because he has the gift of our authority to question.

Robin Bradford, an award-winning short story writer and essayist, has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, and many other places. You can find her in two new anthologies -- Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood and Three-Ring-Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work and Family. Bradford works as a communications and development director for a nonprofit affordable housing provider in Austin. She lives with her husband and son, three cats and a dog in a tiny fifties house. Being the mother—of a child over the age of three!—is the best thing that ever happened to her. Send feedback for Robin to: motherload@austinmama.com and visit her site at www.robinbradford.net