When I was a little boy “time-outs” were yet to be discovered. When I “got out of line”, I would get what was referred to as “scolded”, then I would be sent to my room, if that didn’t work it was followed up with a “whoppin’ ”. Usually the amount of time in my room would coincide with the crime, that is what I was brainwashed into thinking. It was not long until I realized that the time did not fit the crime and I felt it was more in line with me carrying out the most heinous offenses against humanity. I was not allowed television, telephone access, or contact with any other human, and only by way of appeal and special petition could I be allowed to use the bathroom once every few hours.
A shameful act of cursing would not gain the adoration and accolades youth so proudly get from their parents nowadays. Today when little Johnny blurts out a profanity it’s, “did he say what I think he said? That’s too funny,” and the room chuckles in laughter over how cute little Johnny’s slip of the tongue is. In my day, a slip of the tongue, a moment of amnesia – forgetting ones surroundings and committing the crime of the century by letting your parents hear you swear – purchased you an immediate trip to the bathroom sink. Once at the sink, if luck was on your side that day and you just made a small foul-mouthed slip and your parent was in a particular good mood, you were given the choice of the flavor of the bar of soap you were about to consume (I became quite the connoisseur of Dial). If your parent had a bad day you just dealt with whatever bar of soap was the closest within their reach. Now a parent myself and thinking back, I wonder how any parent could shove a bar of soap in the mouth of a child when it dissolves grease, dirt, and grime from an automobile mechanics hands, and at the same time it builds up toxic sludge in sewers?
I recall a bad habit I had when I was a child of around six-years-old. For attention, I would light fires. The fire fascinated me. I would light paper on fire with the stove. Both my parents were smokers, in their day smoking was the cool and hip thing to do and everybody did it, so there were always matches in the house. I would use my parent’s matches to light newspaper, tissue, and toilet paper on fire. My dad worked a lot and my mom grew increasingly frightened about my fascination of fire. One day, I overheard my mother telling my grandmother about my “little problem” of lighting fires. While she was telling my grandmother about it, my mother began crying and talking like a crazy person. She said, “I’m just afraid he’s going to burn the house down. We’re all in danger. There’s no telling when he’ll light a fire and what if he decides to do it while we’re asleep.”
Even at such a young age, somehow I knew… I was in control, and every time the fire started I would soon extinguish it (In my mind, every time I extinguished the fire I was saving my family), so, why would she think I would hurt them? While my mother and grandmother were discussing my “problem”, my grandmother stopped my mother mid-sentence and asked, “Where is he?” “In his room. He’s being punished again,” she replied. My grandmother came into my room and sat on my bed. She said, “No hugs for grandma?” I was surprised because I expected a lecture on the dangers of starting fires. Then she asked me, “So, what do you want for Christmas?” Even at six, I thought this was odd since it was summertime. I responded, “You know those little green plastic Army men. The kind that come in a bag with the tanks and trucks and stuff. That’s what I want, but I know I won’t get it ‘cause I’m not good.” Grandma gave me another hug, kissed me on the cheek and smiled at me and left.
Later that day mom told me to get myself cleaned up and ready because my grandmother was taking me out somewhere. I thought, This is it. They are finally fed up and they are having me sent away using grandma as a ploy to cover up the grand plot. Grandma picked me up and we drove away in her car. She said, “I decided we’re going Christmas shopping today.” I didn’t know what she was talking about and I just stared out the car window. We pulled in front of the local variety store, Ben’s Five & Dime.
There was nothing like the local Five & Dime. They had everything from records, clothing, kitchenware, televisions, you name it and the Five & Dime had it. My favorite were the toys and why not, I was a kid. Grandma took me to the toy department and said, “Okay, show me these little green space men.” I said, “They’re Army men grandma.” Then I spotted a huge bag, the biggest in the store, the Five Star Generals 1000 pieces bag of Army men and various other military vehicles and accessories. “Here they are grandma, here they are.” I just couldn’t believe I was actually holding them in my hand. It was like my wildest dream come true.
Grandma looked me square in the eye, “Now listen. I am going to buy you this bag of little green Army men if you make me a promise. It’s an easy one. You have to promise me that you will never light another match or set anything on fire again. Do you promise me?” My eyes bulged out of their sockets. I would finally get the present I had been waiting for since last Christmas and I would not have to wait until next Christmas, which seemed like an entire lifetime away and all I had to do was promise grandma I wouldn’t light any more fires. “Yes grandma,” I said, “I promise you, I swear. You’re the best grandma in the whole world,” I replied as I held tightly onto the extra large bag of little green Army men and grabbed her hand with my free hand and gave her a squeeze.
When we arrived back home, my grandmother told my mother that she “took care of the problem” and that my punishment should be considered paid in full. She explained to my mom that I promised I would never start another fire and that I would “behave.” I kept my promise about starting fires, but the whole behaving thing did not last too long. I always seemed to find myself in trouble for something, after all I was a little boy.
Back in my day, parents did some farfetched things to get the attention of their children. Spankings were not spared and the idea of breaking the rules had serious consequences. Sure, some parents took it too far, most parents nowadays do not take it far enough. Kids will be kids as they say. However, when kids order the parents around and kids make the rules, there is a serious problem within the family unit and society’s ideology of what the term “parenting” means. Part of the job of rearing a child means teaching that child to conform. One problem facing young people today is they are of the mind that the world and the elder generation must conform to them and their ways for unity and harmony to prevail.
Grandma found a way to get through to me. She did it in a way that was loving and it made for a safe environment for me and those around me. Did the spankings and the wrath of my parents increase my grandmother’s chances of success with me, I simply do not know, but I doubt it hurt anything other than my butt and my pride. A spoiled and undisciplined child is a child who will not have too many friends, nor will they learn the value of harmony in their life, or what feats teamwork can accomplish. When it becomes all about me, then the rest of the world is nothing more than an illusion.