“Did you steal that?”
The question impressed, shocked, and scared me, all at the same time, and the fear was amplified by the knowing look in my stepmom’s eyes. It never occurred to me that she would’ve recognized the bottle as one from the country store, but from the moment I walked into the kitchen and presented it to her with an innocent and excited, “Look what I found in the woods!” the situation was off the course I had charted in my head, and it went directly into the ditch. I can’t tell you to this day if she did recognize it, if she had seen me steal it and waited for me to come clean, or if she just somehow suspected something was up and decided to bluff a confession out of me.
Whatever the case was, I tried to offer a few whimpering claims of innocence. “No, look. It’s muddy.” I pointed meekly to the dirt smeared on the glass, while inside, a voice screamed, “My God, she knows!”
It all ended with her driving me back to the store and me confessing to someone in charge. I do remember the person I spoke to being exceptionally angry and threatening to do something along the lines of calling the police. Even at my young age, I remember thinking, “Geez, guy, it’s only a little bottle. Aren’t you overreacting?” but mostly I remembered being terrified, ashamed, and in tears. I just stood there, eyes down, repeating how sorry I was, taking my lumps.
The real tough part, though, came at home, when my parents told me that I would be grounded for the rest of the summer, and to accentuate just how seriously they were taking my actions – to drive the final nail into my summer’s coffin – the grounding would be inside. No basketball in the driveway. No playing in the yard. I couldn’t even go outside to stare forlornly down the driveway and wish I was down the street, out in the neighborhood, where I knew my friends were having the time of their lives. I would have to do my staring from my bedroom window.
Some might consider the punishment harsh, but as I said, I had a problem with stealing, and that summer inside let me know that my issue was a big deal. It didn’t cure me of the problem, at least not right away, but it helped set me on the path of eventually overcoming it.
The most important past was that they followed through on the punishment. It must have been hard. Me stuck inside for the eight weeks of July and August was a punishment for them, too, and I’m sure I was exquisitely pathetic in my requests for early release. But they didn’t falter. I remember thinking that they were cruel, that the punishment did not fit the crime. Stealing a crummy little bottle did not merit the execution of my entire summer, but eventually, not that summer but sometime later, I figured out that it didn’t matter what I stole. What mattered was that I stole something at all.
And I’ve tried to carry their example into adulthood, especially when it comes to discipline in the classroom. I avoid vague threats like, “Keep doing that and you’ll be sorry,” instead using specific consequences. “Keep doing that and you’ll sit out of playtime for five minutes.” And I do my best to follow through, to be kind but firm, to stick to my word even if their sad faces are breaking my heart because I know giving in is what they want from me but it’s not what they need.
And now I have to do it at home, too. Violet isn’t yet at an age where follow through and discipline are a major concerns, but I try to maintain some follow through when it comes to routine. I know she can understand cause-and-effect, that if we come right away when she cries upon being put to sleep that she’ll keep doing it. So when we put her to bed, we close the door and let her cry, because we know that although she wants to stay up and for us to be close, she needs her sleep and she needs to learn how to self-soothe. Linda and I sit on the couch and look at each other, waiting for the other one to say, “Has it been long enough? Should we go in and settle her down?” We usually set a time limit of ten minutes, after which we bring the dustbuster into the bedroom, allowing the white noise as a small crutch towards sleep. It usually works, and I go through the rest of the night feeling like I’ve followed through on my commitment to giving Violet some indpenednce in falling asleep.
But the other night, she just would not go to sleep. Ten minutes of tears came and went, and the dustbuster just gave her something to cry over. I knew Linda wanted to go in and calm her down, but I was against it. Then, Linda went to the bathroom and I was left on the couch alone listening to Violet’s cries escalate to that scary sort of shrieking, choking sob level, and suddenly, follow through didn’t seem so important. I went into the bedroom. Violet sat in the crib, holding onto the bars, her blue eyes red-rimmed and wet, looking at me with all the want an eight month old can muster, and I picked her up. I faced her out, pulled her onto my chest, and leaned back into the pillows on our bed. She gave a few shuddery sighs and went quiet, and within seconds, she was asleep, her eyes still red, but now relaxed and closed.
Like stacking her new blocks, I had piled up nearly eight months worth of bedtime follow through, and with one swipe of her arm, she had knocked it down. I know one night’s behavior doesn’t make a habit, but having her fall asleep on my chest like that, of seeing how my presence made her feel all better, that’s going to be hard to pass up the next time she’s crying at bedtime. I can listen to her scream and cry, knowing that it’s what she needs, or I could go in the bedroom and delight in giving her what she wants. It’s the ice cream equivalent of baby behaviors - no good for either of us, but so very, very enjoyable.