This happened a few nights ago. My child weathered it pretty well. She didn’t fuss or cry. She did repeat many, many times, “I want to be home.” But my frustration wasn’t due to her behavior. For once, a four-year-old behaved better than every adult surrounding her.
No one enjoys being stuck in rush hour traffic that is further convoluted due to a fender bender that shuts down two lanes. I get that it’s no fun for anyone. I don’t get taking it out on all the drivers who are not responsible. Why are you honking and yelling at me? Why don’t you pull up next to the drivers of the wrecked cars and the police officers who blocked the lane and yell at them? This ridiculous, terrible behavior does not, I hate to say, bring out the best in me. At one point I lost my temper such that I yelled back at a fellow motorist a terribly profane phrase. Nothing original, but pretty high up there on the obscenity scale.
As soon as the words left my mouth, I regretted it. Stupid, I thought. That motorist couldn’t hear me; I had my windows rolled up. But you know who could hear me? The four-year-old in the backseat. I immediately bit my lip and prayed in the pregnant paused that followed that she hadn’t heard it.
“Daddy?” she said after a moment. “Why did you say that?”
“Say what?” Adolescent denial.
Then she repeated it back to me. With impeccable enunciation.
“I didn’t say that,” I said.
“What did you say then?” she asked. A perfectly reasonable question.
My mind raced to try to come up with a sound-alike phrase that would fit the situation. Shucks, fool? Duck poo? Stuck, too? (Why didn’t I just say “Forget you”? Why can’t I hear Cee-Lo when it’s helpful?)
I couldn’t come with anything other than, “Something else.” Something else. Desperately grasping at any way to downplay the situation, suck it dry of any significance that would keep the phrase memorable in her impressionable young mind.
“Why did you say that?” she asked again.
“Daddy is really frustrated and is saying nonsense things,” I managed.
This seemed to satisfy her, and she went back to singing a song about wanting to be home.
Now, along with my fury at being stuck in traffic within eyesight of both other motorists with displaced rage and my own living room, self-loathing crept in. I am a terrible father. I have now taught my four-year-old daughter one of the few remaining phrases in vernacular English that can still elicit gasps of horror and shock. I flashed forward to the day that I would pick her up at daycare – daycare! – and her teacher would say to me softly, “We heard her say something troubling…” and I would have to admit it was all my fault, she learned it from me, because I am a terrible father and it’s only a matter of time before my daughter becomes a stripper in a biker gang.
After some minutes of us idling on the road, her singing a cheerful song about wanting to be home while I stewed in my shame and remorse, traffic began to move. Of course, I was in the lane that was blocked. I put on my signal and attempted to merge, but of course several cars ignored me and passed me. Infuriated again, I opened my mouth to curse. Thankfully, my sense of dishonorable parental failure was overwhelming, and so instead of profanity, I growled at these cars, “You are not kind!”
“Who’s not kind, Daddy?” she asked.
“These cars are not kind because they didn’t let me over,” I explained.
Then a car did let me over. I waved in relief.
“What about that car behind us?” she asked.
“Yes, that car was kind to me.”
Finally, we pulled inside our apartment complex. I stopped by the mailboxes to pick up our mail, rushing out into the rain while my daughter waited in the car. As I gathered up the mail and headed back to the car, several packages stuck under my arm, the rain still pouring down, some guy stopped me.
“Excuse me,” he said, “can you help me open my mailbox?”
I stopped, rain coming down, my annoyance barely contained. Seriously? All I wanted was to get home in out of the rain, get my child inside, and give her some coloring books and toys that would help cover over any imprint of my terrible parenting.
“I can’t get the door open,” the guy said again. It seemed like the quickest way to get him to leave me alone was to open his mailbox for him. He handed his key to me and showed me his mailbox. I put the key in and snapped it open. I had no idea what would be keeping him from doing this task for himself – if he’d been putting the key in the wrong way or turning it the wrong way or not holding his mouth right – but the ease in which it took to open his box just angered me more. You couldn’t figure this out on your own? I thought. You need help opening a damn mailbox? What are you gonna do when you get your mail tomorrow, come to my apartment and knock on the door and ask me to open it again?
“Thank you!” he said. “Have a good night!”
I mumbled a “you’re welcome” and ran back to the car, rain dripping down behind my ears. I jumped in and shut the door, started the car, trying hard to keep my frustration from bubbling over.
“Daddy,” my daughter said in the back, “you were kind to that man.”
My hands froze on the steering wheel. “Was I?”
“Yes. You helped him. That was kind of you.”
Tears of shame and disappointment filled my eyes. I hadn’t been feeling any kindness towards that poor man. I helped him, but I was as begrudging as I could be about it. I’ve no doubt that man felt my irritation, as if he were just one more inconvenience to me. I hadn’t been any more kind or compassionate than those cars honking and zipping past me.
I have a lot of shame about my failings as a father. I lose my temper far more than I want. I say things I shouldn’t ever say. Sometimes I’m inconsistent in how I affirm or discipline my child. I let my irritation get the better of me. None of this is helped when my child can ironically, if unintentionally, point out to me how much I’m failing to be the kind of person that I want to teach my child to become. It is a particularly painful humbling when children behave better than the adults around them.
When we finally got inside the apartment, Mommy was there to greet us. The first thing my child told her was that Daddy was kind. “Really?” Mommy said, smiling at me without any knowledge of the darkness that had been brewing in me for the past half hour. She recounted the story of how I had helped a man at the mailbox. She didn’t tell my spouse anything about how angry I was. She didn’t mention the strange word Daddy had used. She didn’t talk about the traffic or the rain or the unkind cars or the simmering rage in Daddy’s hunched shoulders and scowling eyes.
If you know me at all, then you know I’m not going to let myself off the hook for the ways I fall short as a parent. Thankfully, my child seems to be much more gracious than I am. Thirty minutes of watching her father at his worst, and what does she remember? The one nice thing I did for someone else. Perhaps I am too pessimistic about the world, jaded from the years of violent news headlines and fickle friends and the disappointments of an arbitrary universe. Perhaps I am too quick to assume that my child will only absorb the bad things because I have let myself become saturated with bad things. Perhaps I should stop underestimating the durability of kindness.
My child can be unkind. She gets mean sometimes. I still need to be vigilant in keeping her from picking up new ways of being cruel to others. But I should probably give her more credit for her graciousness, kindness, and optimism about other people. I should also probably give myself a little more credit for the small ways I uphold and encourage her to be the sort of person I value. And maybe along the way I will get imprinted to be more kind and gracious and forgiving.