If I would have described my parents as strict when I was sixteen, I see in retrospect that they simply cared about me. Like most good parents, they understood that children need rules. They need someone to say no.
Children thrive inside of healthy and reasonable boundaries, and caring parents create such boundaries because they recognize that chores, good manners, and, in their teenage years, a curfew don’t keep their children from expressing themselves but rather help them mature into well-rounded individuals.
The physical borders of the canvas determine what can be painted there. Poets use rhyme, meter, and line breaks to draw out unlooked for words and meanings. Constraints create rather than limit creative possibilities.
Is a child so different than a poem?
None of us lives in a vacuum, and we’ve had experiences with people who don’t play well with others. You may have heard someone say that children don’t have problems, only parents have problems: children amplify or illuminate their parents’ idiosyncracies and mistakes. The parents who believe in “free expression”—a decision to not spank their kids, which as I’ve observed, easily morphs into an absence of any discipline whatsoever—can handicap their children.
While the enlightened parents rant about the moral superiority of sparing the rod and the irreparable harm that violence does to children’s delicate psyches, their little jerks are interrupting the conversation, ripping toys out of the hands of other kids, or yanking on the dog’s tail. Cool. Thanks for providing our community with another egomaniac.
Without pruning, they grow wild and unmanageable like a forgotten hedge. One person calls it freedom, and another calls it neglect.
Teachers, coaches, and other parents will spend the next two decades trying to finish the job that the parents neglected, attempting to drive a few fundamental truths through the thick skulls of someone else’s spawn:
· Nobody owes you anything.
· Your entitlement complex will undermine your ability to maintain healthy relationships.
· Don’t think that you can trample social etiquette and then be praised for your boldness and originality; cool disregard for other people’s feelings and needs is not the same thing as “being true to yourself.”
· Temper tantrums are an unsophisticated form of manipulation; they irritate us and make you look foolish and immature.
Complete freedom is a mirage the same way true democracy is a myth. Even if we somehow managed to traverse the desert and attain that oasis, we would discover within it a pervasive sense of disquiet—a directionless, purposeless abandonment to our own whims and petty lusts. Left to our own devices, would we really choose altruism? No.
If we could do anything we wanted, we would either do nothing or destroy ourselves. Put a bunch of children in a room with no supervision and see if something doesn’t end up broken and someone crying. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is an allegory of men left to their own devices. Without discipline and fences, we are babies with breasts or facial hair. We must be taught that a life characterized by self-sacrifice and service to others is a life of richness and contentment.
The summer after my senior year of high school, I was dating a girl who had been accepted at Clemson. We both knew she’d be leaving, but we waited to break up until seven hours before she drove out of town. I would not recommend sprinting toward the cliff in this fashion, but that’s another story.
With characteristic shortsightedness, I spent every free hour I had with this blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty. The four cylinders in my ’88 Honda Accord LXI, “The Toast,” would whine as I raced my love-drunk self home, trying to cross the threshold before the stroke of midnight when the carriage reverted back to a pumpkin and my parents’ leniency might change into house arrest.
Since my bedroom was downstairs and theirs was upstairs, I had to go up and kiss one of them goodnight before going to bed. This was the way they checked the time and kept tabs on my nocturnal comings and goings.
Of course, they wanted to know who I was with and what we were doing, but if I called ahead to tell them that the movie had run over or that I needed to stop for gas, they wouldn’t convict me on a technicality.
My dad is a heavy sleeper, so when I came in late, I often went to my mom’s side of the bed to kiss her goodnight. The blessed darkness hid my lips, which always felt heavy from kissing my girlfriend.
My goal was always to be as quiet as possible. They needed to remember in the morning that I had satisfied the requirements of our arrangement, but I wanted drowsiness to prevent them from focusing too much on the exact time of my arrival.
Sleep, my pretty, sleep. Don’t worry about the time. Let’s not get caught up in minutes and seconds. Sleep. Sleep…
One night, I got in about 12:15am, which wasn’t too bad, and I crept upstairs to say goodnight. My mom would typically wake up when she heard me come in the room, but this time, she stayed asleep.
I put a hand on my dad’s shoulder and gave him a gentle shake. He shifted and sighed but didn’t wake.
“Dad…” I whispered.
“Dad.” A little bit louder.
He opened his eyes.
“I’m home,” I said.
He just stared at me.
“You have spots on your face.”
“What?” I asked.
“You have spots on your face.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Dad, I don’t have spots on my face.”
“Yes, you do.”
“C’mere to the bathroom, and I’ll show you.”
He lifted the covers off himself, rolled out of bed, and in a strange role reversal, followed me to the hallway bathroom like an obedient child.
Once I’d flipped on the light, he stepped in and we looked at my face in the mirror.
No spots on my face.
“See, I don’t have spots on my face.”
“Why did I think you had spots on your face?”
“I don’t know.”
“Go on back to bed, Dad.”
“Okay,” he said.
“See you in the morning.”
A few nights later, I came in about the same time and went to my dad’s side of the bed. The same as the last time, I shook his shoulder. Once. Twice. Three times…four.
He never woke up, so I went back downstairs and went to bed.
The next morning at breakfast, he said with an overtone of accusation, “You didn’t come up and say goodnight when you got in last night.”
“Yes, I did.”
“Well, I don’t remember.”
“I shook you like five times, and you never woke up.”
He had no choice but to believe me, because he knew I never lied to them.
We never had a formal conversation puting an end to my curfew After that brief exchange, I stopped going up to say goodnight, and my parents never mentioned it. The lifting of my curfew carried a note of sadness: I was growing up. I didn’t have to race home anymore, run red lights, keep out a keen eye for the Brentwood fuzz who loved nothing better than pulling over punk high school kids who might have some booze or weed. I had my parents’ trust, and discovered that being trustworthy is a lot less sexy than being irresponsible.
What would life be without rules to break? What would we do for fun?