Who is Being Punished Here?

April 13, 2015

Posted By: Shaunescy

By Shane Borrowman

“Dad,” Sam said as we played HORSE, “I need to ask you something.”  Sam and I play a lot of basketball.  At first, I passively justified the fact that I generally lose by making noises about “having an off day” or “being out of practice.”  But I was never, ever “in practice,” and my longest sustained experience with basketball involves drinking beer and watching March Madness.

In the last few months, as Montana has enjoyed a freakishly mild winter, basketball has taken on a central role in my life.  The driveway is where my daughter feels most able to talk to me.  So I play HORSE and lose and wait for her to open up.  Sam plays her emotional cards close to her chest, just as I always did when I was young.  If I can just be quiet long enough, though, the wait pays off.

“I’ve got this problem,” she began, pegging a nothing-but-net from twenty feet out.

I missed my shot and moved one letter closer to defeat.

“Jimmy said for me to call him, but I don’t know if I should.  He likes me, but his friends tease him.”  She trailed off.  She sunk another improbable shot.

“His friends tease him because he has a girlfriend and they don’t?”  I missed again.

“Yeah.  So he kind of stays away at recess but still wants me to call him.  What do I do?”

I shrugged my shoulders, shook my head, threw another brick.  “Don’t call him.  If he can’t hang out with you in school, can’t stand up to a little teasing from his friends, then he’s not worth it.”

Even as I said it, it occurred to me that that’s a pretty damning indictment of a boy who is only ten.  I forged ahead:  “He wants it both ways.  He wants to be distant at school, but he wants to be your boyfriend.  If he’s going to be with you, then he has to be there all the time, not just when no one is looking.”

Sam tends to think like I do, so this made total sense to her.  She didn’t call him.

I finished losing the game, smiling all the while.  I felt like Father of the Year, felt like I’d just moved through the opening scene of an after-school special.  Maybe, I though, Steve Martin could play me in the film.  Sam presented me with a problem, and I offered her sound, clear, useful advice.  More importantly, I walked her through my thinking on the situation and my rationale for why she should do what I counseled her to do.  Or not to do, I guess.

Fathers only have maybe a dozen chances to say exactly the right thing, and I used another one of mine up.  I rock.

But that’s not really true, not in the not-made-for-television-movie world.  Sam had a problem, and I think I helped her find a way to think about it clearly and fully, a way that empowered her and reaffirmed her worth completely separate from her boyfriend and their relationship.

Sam doesn’t clean her room regularly, though, or make the bed in more than a passing fashion—just a vaguely smoothed out pile of blankets with stuffed animals and pillows strewn everywhere.  Sam doesn’t sort the laundry or clean the upstairs bathroom, even though those are both chores on her To Do list (which is carefully balanced against the things on her brother John’s list, of course, in the interest of total fairness).  Sam hates to be told to do anything, and she sighs and rolls her eyes and says “Stop” in a whining voice that makes me shudder with an overwhelming mixture of anger and exasperation.

When she won’t do her chores, won’t do what she’s told to do, I react badly.  I raise my voice.  I take away electronic devices.  I forbid her from riding her new bike to school.  I ground her from the telephone.  I take away her use of the basketball court.

I hate that I’m so easily pushed to those places, and taking away basketball is just…well, stupid.  That’s time we spend together, so I’m probably punishing myself as much or more than I’m punishing Sam.  I do it, though, because I can’t figure out anything else, can’t find another approach.

Steve Martin would do better.


With Love, Dad

Shane Borrowman is a native of Anaconda, father of twins, and professor of English at The University of Montana Western.  He has published on a wide range of topics, including the development of boxing in Renaissance England, medieval Arabic philosophy, and American zombie films.  He is editor or co-editor of four writing textbooks and six collections of original scholarship. Visit http://www.shaneborrowman.com , home of Shane's blog, Kairotic Palaver.

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