I got a call from Dave today as I was driving from work to pick up the kids, and had to interrupt a precious call with my mother.
"Just to warn you," he said, "the boys are in SERIOUS trouble today."
When I arrived at the CDC, I talked at length with the CDC Director about (mostly) Gabriel's trangressions, trying to contain my increasing irritation and frustration. Gabriel had ignored a fire drill, threw rocks at another kid, and had threatened to take off and just walk home. Any one of those by themselves is a major transgression. Three together, and where do you even start?
Julian's offenses were more typical: disobeying and disrupting, but nothing as serious as throwing rocks at kids.
I keep hearing from other grownups about how they wouldn't have dared to defy their parents, because of the threat of The Belt. For the first time, I told Dave on the phone, "That's it, this time, Gabriel really needs it." This isn't the first time we've dealt with Gabriel disobeying during a fire drill, but it is the first time we've dealt with throwing rocks at other kids, and in the same day.
I didn't say anything to Gabriel on the way home, instead telling him in low, curt tones to put his lunch away, wash his hands, and meet me upstairs. Dave got home early to deal with this too, and we quickly formed a plan: while I talked to Gabriel in our room, Dave would put away every single toy he has. We agreed that my talk with Gabriel would include a demonstration.
Dave started emptying toys from Gabriel's shelves, while I confronted Gabriel in our room. I first asked him if what we'd heard was true, and he said yes, with concern but without fear. I have to hand it to him -- he knew he was in serious doo-doo, but he still didn't lie or try to duck out.
Then I stepped it up and told him sternly that throwing rocks at kids and disobeying during fire drills is absolutely, completely, totally NOT ALLOWED. With no opportunity for explanation or excuse, I went into my closet and emerged with a belt. I explained that this is what parents used to do all the time to disobedient kids. I smacked it across a bench and told him that it would hurt. I then told him I was going to show him how it felt, and instructed him to pull his pants down and lie down on the bed.
Gabriel's face clouded over with anger and upset over what he saw was going to happen. "OK MOM," he said defiantly, "I'LL SAY I'M SORRY." I didn't waver -- appear to waver -- and repeated my instructions. He lay down, I told him to move his hands protecting his rear end, then raised mine with the belt, and then smacked the end of the 1" leather across his bare rear end. He didn't react at first, then he leapt up suddenly and screamed at the top of his lungs.
It was an out-of-body experience for me. Did I really just take a leather belt to my son's bare bottom?? Am I that kind of parent? Or am I a regular parent who's been pushed too far? What will the alternative crowd say? What will the traditional crowd say? Has either ever actually been pushed this far?
In truth, the actual impact was pretty minor. The real impact was in the shock value, and with that, I think I succeeded. He was really shaken.
But I succeeded in reaching him even more after leaving him alone for a few moments, then returning to explain to him firmly that all his toys were being put away. He was horrified, but still calm from the overall shock if the situation.
I sat down next to him with genuine dejection. "I don't know what to do, Gabriel. I just can't teach you that you must do what you're told sometimes. Maybe a military boarding-school camp can help, because I just can't seem to do it."
I told him how much I hate to waste our precious time together talking about his bad behavior, instead of hanging together. I told him that there's nothing I love more than being with him and talking to him, but instead here I am talking about his throwing rocks at other kids. I told him that I'm responsible for him, and that sometimes means doing things I hate, like whacking him with a belt or being apart from him. I told him I'm responsible for his behavior and responsible for how the other kids' mother feels.
I sent him to his now-empty room, locked myself in a bathroom, and cried.
It occurred to me that everyone I know who's remembered The Belt as a child hasn't actually used it as a parent. Even those that did in the Olden Days did so because that was just what was done -- not because they were dealing with a truly difficult child.
Most modern parents couldn't dream of resorting to The Belt -- but if do you try to dream it, first dream of months of notes from his teachers, countless apologetic complaints from the after-school care director, numerous explosive conflicts at home, and then -- just by itself -- imagine hearing that your child threw rocks at another kid, and then dream how the other kids' mother must feel.
Gabriel stayed in his room crying and threatening to kill himself (threats I shrugged off but in fact did make me run up and check him frequently) while I made dinner. I guess his crying that his life was horrible and not worth living means we got through to him tonight. It certainly got through to me.
Dave and I also dealt with Julian, who'd also had his problems today but much more on ordinary lines. Julian took keen note of how Gabriel's toys (except books, which are shared here) were all gone, and appeared wide-eyed and concerned when we warned him that he was next.
I see no benefit to depriving a kid of food, so Gabriel joined us for dinner, where he sat sadly for most of it. He cried at one point: "What could be worse than not spending time with you (me) and losing Bear?" I talked to him calmly and persuaded him to eat, after which he relaxed. I told him that if his behavior was PERFECT tomorrow - at school and at CDC, then we'd talk about how to start getting his toys back. I told him how much I love being with him and how it sucked that he had to choose rock-throwing over me.
To my amazement, he agreed without the usual massive resistance to write a letter of apology to the CDC director, who's gone WAY WAY out of his way to accommodate our special cases. He got sadder at first at Katrina's talk of Truckee and skiing, then got happier when I told him November was plenty of time for him to get his act together.
I actually don't believe The Belt is the answer. It's a piece of the answer to deal with immediate severe problems -- a "timeout" just doesn't cut it anymore. Tonight's demonstration was designed to lend weight to future threats, without the intent of employing it on a regular basis.
Still, Gabriel seemed far more deeply affected when I told him how sad it made me that we couldn't hang together and talk. He tuned out about how bad that the other kid and the other kids' mother must feel, but there was no doubt his demeanor changed when I told him how disappointed and sad he'd made me.
Like his father and grandfather, he's not one to form relationships lightly or with many people. He'll have very close long loyal relationships with a few people. Family is built-in for long close relationships, and none moreso than your relationship with your mother. Gabriel's father didn't have a particularly close relationship with his mother, but times were such that people accepted those things back then and didn't examine them, but I'm determined that not be the case with us.
It's already not the case -- Gabriel and I are very very close, and every day we have wonderful moments together. I'm completely sincere when I tell him that I think about him all the time, and that I love him completely, through my bones and my blood, no matter how mad he makes me. It's completely true that he's been there for the happiest times in my life -- not just the exciting times like skiing or camping, but even just our one-on-one yaks together after dinner when Dave is getting the younger two ready for bed.
I know I'm the key. I can get through to this extraordinary child. He really really needs me. I just don't know what lock or set of locks to use the key in, or which way to turn the key and how hard. I can't seem to find the way to influence him before the crisis happens. This is Tough Love for me.