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Across the Fence: And that's not a threat...
November 03, 2011 M. Timothy Nolting   

Read more by M. Timothy Nolting
Never threaten a child with discipline that you cannot, or don’t intend to, carry out. I had either read this somewhere or it was told to me by someone who probably had better success with the actual implementation of the advice than I did.

“You are grounded until you are married!” I once told my 14-year-old daughter, Tinisha. I don’t even remember what she had done to deserve this extreme punishment. I do know that she had not yet even ‘discovered’ boys at the time.

After a week or so I finally realized that if I kept her grounded she would never meet someone who might be interested in marrying her. I had backed myself into a corner that was inescapable. Unless I relented and ended the grounding she would be living with me forever.

“If your room isn’t cleaned up and your toys and clothes put away before bedtime, everything left on the floor will be thrown in the trash.” This was the punishment threatened when my son Tim J., at either 9 or 10 years old, repeatedly failed to keep his room clean and his things put away. This was the last ditch effort to entice him to pick up his things.

When bedtime rolled around toys, clothes, books, various and sundry other clutter still lay strewn across his bedroom floor. In a grand display of authority I scooped up armloads of debris and carried them out to the dumpster as Tim J. calmly observed. After the deed was done, Tim J. went out to the dumpster and carried in his toys, his books and other non-essential items and put them neatly away. Smiling with smug satisfaction at my successful ploy I asked, “What about your clothes?”

“If you don’t want me to go to school naked, you’ll get me new ones,” he coolly replied. Foiled again! I went out to the dumpster and brought his clothes in and put them away.

Deb and I were recently in the San Diego airport on our return to Nebraska after celebrating a joint 80th birthday party for Deb’s aunt and uncle. Waiting for Deb to come out of the Ladies room, I heard the high-pitched wailing of an obvious juvenile temper tantrum.

“Get up off the floor now or I’m going to leave you here and you won’t go with me to Minnesota to see you daddy!” This was obviously an idle threat, but never-the-less one that raised the level of screaming at least a dozen decibels.

Deb emerged, shaking her head, followed by a harried mother pushing an infant in a stroller, dragging a much displeased, kicking and screaming 5-year-old boy with a wide-eyed 3-year-old scurrying close behind. Upon reflection, perhaps it was not an idle threat. However, I could see why the young man must have been laying on the floor throwing a tantrum. The backpack that was strapped on him was nearly as big as he was and likely weighed as much. No doubt the result of the airlines new luggage restrictions limiting each passenger to one carry-on. As I looked around the terminal I realized that this new policy has reduced many traveling children to nothing more than beasts of burden with an airline ticket.

My mother often offered behavioral alternatives with grave consequences and these warnings were often followed with, “… and that’s not a threat, it’s a promise.”
I remember, with vivid clarity, one such occasion. I must have been around thirteen because I remember that my youngest sister, Marcy, was a toddler and all seven of us kids were in the car with Mom. With the arrival of the seventh child, Mom and Dad had purchased a 1957 Ford Fairlane, nine-passenger station wagon. Obviously the only vehicle, short of a one-ton flatbed with separate cages, that would transport the seven of us along with a months supply of groceries, all at the same time.

We were on the return trip from Atchison after a grocery-gathering trip and the troops were getting restless, or at least I was. Even a nine-passenger station wagon can be a bit crowded in the heat and humidity of a northeastern Kansas July.
“Don’t touch me!” I snapped as Carol’s elbow brushed my arm. “Get over on your own side!”
“Stop that!” Carol protested as I pushed against her shoulder, forcing her tighter against the boxes of groceries. “Ouch!”
“Move over!”
“Stop it!”
“Mom….”

Suddenly the car swerved to the right and came to an abrupt halt on the shoulder of the road. Mom reached up and adjusted the rear view mirror until she was able to make eye contact with me and began; “Tim! Keep your hands and feet to yourself. Scoot over against the door.” I did. “Now, that’s it! If you bother your sister one more time you’re going to walk the rest of the way home. And that’s not a threat. It’s a promise. Understand?”

Seems Mom was always asking me if I understood. I can’t understand why?
As Mom pulled off the shoulder onto the road, I reached over a gently ‘touched’ Carol with the tip of my finger.

“Quit it!” she screamed, as if I’d zapped her with a cattle prod.
When the car stopped again, my hands were folded in my lap, my eyes were closed and the door handle and window crank were digging into my left side.

“Get out!” I heard Mom growl.
I held my breath and didn’t move. Mom got out of the car. I reached up and locked my door. Mom reached around the door-post, unlocked and opened the door.
“Get out” she repeated.
I stood by the side of the road as the brown and tan Ford, nine-passenger station wagon pulled away. Carol turned in the seat and waved goodbye.

“She’ll be back,” I thought as they disappeared over the hill.
It was a long, five-mile walk home that hot and humid July day back in the summer of 1962.

Tim Nolting is an award winning Nebraska columnist, freelance writer, cowboy poet and entertainer.
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