Today as I awaited my young daughter’s exodus from the hot showers post-swimming lesson I saw another woman in a an angry tableau with her daughter while the grandmother watched. The little girl had done something – I don’t know what – and was receiving a lengthy scolding, right there in her bathing suit. The mother and the grandmother’s faces were molded in lines of intense displeasure. The object of their ire was avoiding eye contact while making angry grunts. “Look at me. Look at me,” the mother fumed, gripping her daughter’s upper arms. At this the grandmother marched over from a few feet of observational distance, grasped the young girl’s head, and forcefully turned it. “Look at your mother,” she grimly intoned. I lost track of the conversation as my daughter skirted past the trio, giving them a curious glance, and into my waiting towel. A few minutes later, out of eyesight at the locker bank, I heard the sound of a slap and the mother’s voice again, angrily: “Behave.” I thought, impossible. If the little girl was weak-natured, she would be terrified and ashamed. If she was strong-willed, she would be angry and ashamed. At best, she’d be cowed into submission. Adults can win this sort of conflict because they are larger, meaner, and scarier. And the worst thing is adults who behave like this often never reflect on doing things a different way; never learn to take care of their anger, only to unleash it at the expense of their dependents.
I remember episodes like this in my childhood (I was of the strong-willed variety, in case you hadn’t guessed), the full (if momentary) anger and shaming language directed at me by the supposedly loving figures in my life. These incidents were awful, simply awful, and when I see a child treated in this way I remember it like it was yesterday. Only slightly less uncomfortable than witnessing tonight’s unpleasantness was the knowledge that I have myself talked to my child this way, have felt that angry at my child – although I know I have never permitted adults to gang up on my children in any way (at least, not as long as I’ve been present to stop it). It was so easy for me to see, looking in on someone else’s child, that no matter what this girl did she in no way deserved this browbeating. It was so easy for me to imagine this grandmother treated her daughter this way and the cycle continued – at least in this moment there was no growth, no healing.
Alone on our locker room bench, I gather my daughter in my arms, towel and all. She permits the embrace and I have a few blissful seconds of her warmth and dearness. She is tough and smart and almost the age she could physically forage for herself in the world. But in the moment she feels like a tiny bird, all fluttering heart and fragile wings. Gentle, gentle, I think to myself. Can I return to being gentle to my children? I know today’s example will stay with me. I also know I’m not being so gentle to myself lately. Take a breath; tomorrow is a new day. I can do it.