In fact, on her first report card, the kindergarten teacher ended a wonderfully positive evaluation with the following caveat: “When frustrated, Addie tends to hit and tease. We need to help her with that.”
And so we tried to teach Addie the several axioms of family life:
1. Frustration is unavoidable
2. It is never OK for children to hit, no matter how frustrated they are.
3. Never say never. It’s very frustrating.
And, as long as I’m tossing out axioms like they’re hot dogs on the family grill, there is one axiom of family life that we didn’t share with The Bulldozer: The last kids to be picked up from Little League practice or play rehearsal or Brownies are the seedlings from large family trees. (Our seedling's number seven.)
Addie learned about the vicissitudes of late-arriving parents early in life. I was due to pick her up from kindergarten at 3:05 p.m. No problem. My classes at Dutchess Community College were over at 2:30, and it was exactly a 35-minute drive to Campus School. Perfect.
Unfortunately, at 3:04 p.m., when all the good and prompt parents of regular-size families were waiting expectantly in their cars, I was stuck in traffic on the Mid-Hudson Bridge, at least 20 minutes from my soon-to-be-waiting 5-year-old. I was late for a variety of reasons. I won’t drive you down that road; there are always good reasons for parents’ being late, and none of them ever really add up. Suffice it to say that I arrived at the school promptly at 3:30 terribly embarrassed, afraid that the teacher was going to yell at me (a fear that doesn’t seem to ebb with age!), but mostly very worried that little Addie would feel abandoned.
There she was, in her pink smock dress, way, way, way down at the other end of the hall. I waved and breathlessly called my apologies down to the teacher who was standing by Addie’s side.
Ah, I thought as she raced my way, she’s not heartbroken; she’s not crushed; she’s not angry. She’s just glad to see her daddy. I decided then and there that I’d atone for my lateness by getting her an ice cream at JD’s.
And with that, I knelt down and the little dozer leaped into my waiting arms for a giant, loving hug. Which was when I realized that she was sobbing under my chin. Which was just a second or two before she pushed herself back and began pounding her chunky little fists against my chest. Which was when I realized just how afraid she had been, how elated she had been to see me, how furious and frustrated she had felt to be forgotten, and how all of that was happening at the same time.
My wife Patti and I have never allowed our children to hit us for any reason. No matter how young they were or how extreme the situation, that is a firm taboo in our house. Although I’ve seen young children hitting their mothers or fathers often enough to understand that some parents—even the thoughtful ones—don’t place any real significance on it, I believe that children who are allowed to hit their parents are a step or two away from serious troubles in life. If they strike out hard enough to actually level Mom or Dad (a good shot in the gut or the crotch, for example), then the little pugilists gain a frightfully exaggerated sense of their own power, and if they fail to even make their parents wince after repeated roundhouses to the hip or the upper arm, their powerlessness must feel soulfully profound.
But that afternoon I allowed Addie to pound my aching chest while I gathered her up in my arms and held her close to my heart until she calmed down. It was—and remains—the only time I ever allowed one of my children to hit me.
The hurt she felt went all the way down to the dark core of her easily fractured being—and cried out for the kind of balance that only hitting your daddy can satisfy. Sometimes you just have to balance the ledger, even if it’s wrong.
The next time I was late to pick up The Bulldozer (and I assure you, she didn’t have to wait long), I apologized profusely—and bribed her with ice cream for my sin. But when she raised her little fist like a hammer, I snatched it in the air and led her most unsympathetically to the car—and straight home. No ice cream. After the first time, she knew I’d be there.