My 10-year-old came home with a report card that was all As and Bs, and an F in Social Studies. I was surprised by this considering he’d been telling me he didn’t have any homework each night for weeks. Sure, my dad senses prickled, but for the most part, Tristan is a pretty honest kid so I trusted him.
I confronted him about his report card when he was playing the iPad in his bedroom. He’d already told me he didn’t have any homework, like he did the day before and the day before that, on back for a week. I set the report card on his bed and he gave me a wide eye look, his little blue eyes moving side to side, face flushed. He knew it was coming, and I could see him processing an excuse. He was trying hard to figure out something to say that might avert my inevitable dad rage.
I tapped the social study grade. Then I pointed to all the assignments with zeros listed below. “What happened here, Dude? I thought you didn’t have any homework?”
He let out a long breath and went into excuse mode. He told me about how he forgot, and how his teacher didn’t remind him, and how he kept leaving it at school. Since he left it at school, he didn’t think it was homework anymore because he didn’t actually take it home. All of it boiled down to one statement, the same statement all children have given their parents since the dawn of time, “It wasn’t my fault.”
Bullsh*t, I thought. Bull.Sh*t.
I reminded him of the day planner he fills out at the end of each class. I reminded him of how the teacher writes assignments on the board after class. I reminded him that his homework was his responsibility, and suddenly he started to grow a little misty, and he cried, “It’s not a big deal, Dad! Social studies is stupid anyway.”
He looked me right in the eyes, his face flushed, and I knew he was cornered. And it was right then that I started to feel bad for him. I started to feel like I was being too hard on him. Outside of him complaining about cleaning his room and changing his underwear, he was a good kid. Failing a class was a pretty new development.
Suddenly I was faced with a few decisions. I could drop it and let him fail a class. I could come down hard on him, really hard, and make him hate me for the rest of his adolescence. Or I could try and shoot somewhere down the middle, because the reality is, he needed to learn this lesson now. But the reality was, all of it made me feel uncertain. But I suppose uncertainty is a big part of parenting.
We were both quiet for a moment. Eventually I told him about how when I was 10, I’d failed more than just social studies. I’d also been sent home for fighting and talking back and a number of other offenses. “I wasn’t the devil, really. I wasn’t that bad,” I said. “I was more like of his assistants, or something.”
He giggled, but then caught himself.
I went on: “I got into trouble here and there, and I wasn’t all that good at following the rules. I never got kicked out of school, but I did come close a few times.”
Tristan was listening then, and I could feel him getting ready to pull a “you were way worse than I was” move and use it as leverage to get out of trouble.
But before he had a chance, I reminded him of what it was like in my home as a child. “I didn’t have much oversight, either. By the time I was 10, my father was gone and my mother was working two jobs to make ends meet. I’d see her in the mornings before school as she got ready for her job collecting payments at the power company, and I’d hear her come in late at night after she got home from cleaning houses.”
I told him how no one was around to call me on my crap, and so I pressed forward, doing my own thing, making my own rules.
“I honestly wish my father had been around to say, ‘Clint, it’s time to cut the crap,'” I said. “I’d have hated it at the time, sure. But now, as a father who took a really long time to figure it out and grow up, my father calling me out would have shown a lot of love.”
We sat in silence for a while. Tristan looked down at his bedspread as I looked directly at him.
“Here’s the thing,” I said. “I love you enough to make sure you are doing well in your classes. I love you enough to teach you about responsibility. I love you enough to look at your report card and let you know that I expect more. I love you enough to punish you. None of it is personal. I don’t like it any more than you do. But it’s just what fathers do when they want to see their kids do their best.”
I shrugged. Then I told him that he couldn’t have screen time until he was passing social studies.
Naturally, he didn’t like any of this. And to be honest, I didn’t either. For the next few weeks, I was going to hear nothing but him begging to play his iPad. It also felt like I’d gone too far for a moment. I always feel this way when I punish my kids, but I suppose that’s the difficult part of loving your children enough to punish them. It feels like they are going to hate you forever.
He didn’t say much to me the rest of the day. It wasn’t until evening, when I went into his room to tell him goodnight. His back was to me.
“Love you, bud,” I said. He grunted. Then he mumbled, “I’ll fix it,” he said.
I smiled in the dark. Then I leaned in and hugged him, his back still to me.
“I know you will,” I said. “And not because of the screens, but because you are a good kid.”
He let out a long breath and I left his room.