I talk a lot about the tyranny of judgment on this blog. Because it’s the worst, in all its forms. And there are many.
But the worst judgment of all has to be the judgment of your children. Especially when they’re right.
I was Jack Torrance in The Shining, the frustrated dad who makes a mistake, and he was Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, pointing and howling at me with revulsion and fury. I haven’t felt so accused or ashamed since Mom and Buried caught me eating the last couple of Thin Mints for breakfast.
Every adult knows that one of the most sneakily devastating things a parent can say to their child is, “I’m disappointed in you.” Last week, I found out that it works both ways; that, as a parent, it can hurt just as bad when your kid is disappointed in you.
And it probably hurts even more. As a parent, playing the disappointment card is often something of a ploy; a checkmate of surprise and subtlety that’s kept hidden away for just the right moment. But when a kid is disappointed in an adult? There’s nothing calculated about it. It’s just pure sadness and disbelief. And it’ is THE WORST.
It had been a long day. Detective Munch was being a nuisance, which is to say he was being a three-year-old. His threenage colors were popping, and after hours of running errands with this tiny loose cannon at my side, I wanted nothing more than to get in the house and put him down for a nap so I could relax for a minute. But he wasn’t letting up, and as I struggled to get the key in the front door with one hand while carrying multiple bags and a stroller in the other, he squirmed in front of me to try to turn the doorknob himself, because if anyone is doing anything anywhere at any time at all, a toddler has to do it too, and by himself. Simply because he (thinks and desperately wants to prove) he can.
Of course, his interference – and general incompetence at doorknobs – was preventing me from being able to unlock the door myself and reach the promised land that was my couch. So in a moment of frustration, I less-than-gently pushed him to the side to get the room I needed to complete the task and unlock the door. I finally got the key in and shouldered the door open. Success! But when I took a step inside, one of the bags I was holding either bumped into my son or was pulled out from under him and he lost his balance and fell over. I heard him cry and quickly turned around to make sure he was okay.
That’s when his body-snatched (spoiler alert!) Sutherland came out, with the shrieking and the pointing. And that’s when I went from needing a beer to relax after a frustrating day with a toddler to needing ten beers to forget the day I ruined my relationship with my only child.
As I said above, it was THE WORST. He wasn’t physically hurt, but he was confused, and upset, disappointed and maybe even disillusioned that I – his father, of all people! – had knocked him down. He knew I’d blown it. However inadvertently I thought it had happened, in his mind I had crossed some line, and when I saw the look in his eyes, I’d never felt worse. For a split second, it seemed as if our relationship would never be the same. I felt like human garbage; he’d seen his parent snap and he reacted accordingly. Forget The Shining, this was Julius Caesar on the Ides of March.
He’d been betrayed by one of the two people in his life he’d always counted on and thought he’d always be able to count on. Sure, there will come a time when he learns the hard lesson that parents are people too, and that the only person he can ever truly rely on is himself, but three years old is far too young to be taught such a thing, and your father is absolutely the wrong person to teach it. I was rattled, arguably even more disoriented than he was, terrified at what long-term damage my massive parenting fail had wrought. Had I single-handedly turned my son into a cynic?
I apologized and – in the longest two seconds of my life – tentatively moved to pick him up, terrified as I did that he would reject me as the monster I’d just proven myself to be. But he didn’t. Instead, when I hugged him, he hugged me back and let me carry him inside. And just moments later he was laughing uncontrollably while I tickled him.
I like to think he forgave me – that he chalked up the incident as an anomaly and let it go – but it’s more likely that he’d simply truly forgotten and moved on. Kids are resilient – and mush-brained – like that. It’s almost scary.
Because despite the fact that my fears of having permanently altered our relationship were unfounded; despite my anxiety that one moment of frustration might have eternally damaged our bond having been overblown; despite the fact that my son forgot an incident I worried would shape his childhood in less time than it took for his tears to dry, I’ll never forget what it felt like to disappoint my son that afternoon, and I never want to forget, lest it happen again.
So here I am, in the absence of any judgment from an innocent little boy who still loves me unconditionally, levying it upon myself. And deserving every ounce of it.