By DENENE MILLNER
She would look at you with those eyes.
That’s how my mom shut down all kinds of kid shenanigans—“The Look” all but screamed, “If you don’t stop it right now, I’m going to (insert indictable child abuse offense here).” The mere threat of bodily harm made me straighten up and fly right; Bettye had to beat my behind one time only for me to know she wasn’t to be played with. Shoot, even kids who weren’t her kids knew that when Deaconess Millner gave you “The Look” you best get back on the good foot, lest she take you down into the church basement for a little talking to that maybe involved little talking and a lot more hand movement than you’d care to experience.
“The Look” was no joke.
I tried looking at my kids that way. They laughed at me.
Tried spanking them both, too. Mari looked at me with a fear in her eyes I never want to see again; truly, I’d rather be respected than feared by my eldest daughter. When Lila got her butt smacked, she damn near giggled in my face. Or maybe she cried. Then went right back to what she was doing, like my hand never connected with the fatty part of her leg. Which is the equivalent, in my book, of giggling in my face.
Basically, the childrearing techniques that worked for Bettye don’t necessarily work for me—and for good reason. My mom, along with my father, raised two children in the era of Reagonomics, stable factory gigs, good health benefits, and New Edition. Child Services would doggone near high-five the ‘rents for tapping that butt. Today, we moms are trying to survive the policies of The Decider. Competing with Lil’ Wayne lyrics. And working hard to raise up smart, well-behaved, conscious children, sans the beat downs—despite the odds. And without DYFS breathing down our necks.
Somehow, my mother figured out how to discipline us—without the benefit of Scream-Free Parenting coaching, without a parade of child-rearing segments on The Today Show, without a subscription to Parenting magazine. I think my brother and I turned out pretty okay. But there’s something to be said for some of these new-fangled techniques we loudly, resoundingly rail against in the company of our parent peers and especially our own parents, but secretly practice behind closed doors. I readily raise my hand and admit that I give Mari and Lila the straight ice grill when they cut up in front of old black folks—you know, to make it seem like I’m capable of laying the smackdown. But at home, when the over-50 crowd isn’t watching, “time-outs” and “talking tos” are practiced regularly. Even crazier, sometimes it actually works. Take, for instance, yesterday morning: I was packing Lila’s backpack and discovered not only was she trying to smuggle her Nintendo DS to school, she’s swiped an entire pack of Now & Laters from my private candy stash. Had it all up in the front pocket, like it was hers.
Now please understand, playing with my Now & Laters is like playing with my emotions.
But I didn’t trip. When I was six, that would have been grounds for a sound butt whooping, but all my 6-year-old got from me was a firm, “You know you’re not supposed to take your games to school, and you didn’t ask to have any of my candy, which means you stole it from me. So now you don’t get to take snack to school, and you don’t get to play your DS for three days. Now eat your cereal.”
Well you would have thought I’d skinned her with a foot-long switch; the tears were flowing like The Nile down into her Cinnamon Toast Crunch. But when girlfriend realized I was unmoved by the drama and unbowed from my punishment pronouncement, she shut up the noise, ate her cereal, accepted her fate, and, as we walked hand-in-hand to the bus stop, she apologized for ganking my stuff.
And just like that, the drama was over. No cowhide needed to be swung. No shoes needed to be flicked. Nobody had to go out and fetch a branch off the tree. I didn’t have to mean mug or even raise my voice in anger (my one crutch—I’m really trying to work on the yelling, y’all, honest!). She got a simple punishment. And it was over.
If only it could be this easy every time.
In the meantime, I’ll be practicing “The Look” in the bathroom mirror. You know, to break out in case of emergencies.