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Daddy + Kid Both Find Heartbreak in Time Out
Shared suffering at door of reflection room
Kina hit me again the other day, square on the ear—I don’t know why; I did something she didn’t like, and her inner monster took a whirl at me. The rules of the house are clear on this; no warnings, even though it’s been a while since our last time out. Since that last one, I’ve taken off the baby gate we used to leave open in the door of her room. She’s four years old, and that gate had bordered on the absurd for at least six months, but there was meaning in its presence: It was the boundary between time out and time in. So when I carried Kina to her bedroom, surly and barking, and she saw there was no gate, she got extremely freaked out.
I closed the door behind me after leaving her in the room, and she raced to follow me out, begging for forgiveness in a tone I’d never heard her use before—“I’m so sorry, Daddy! I’m so sorry!!” As she wept behind the door, I held it shut, separated from her by only twelve inches, as I slowly fell apart inside. What happened?
I have talked before about Kina’s developmental spurts, and how great stretches of tantrums presage the unlocking of new potential in her mind. This potential is normally either amusing or impressive, but the burst I’ve come to understand she’s navigating now is different; Kina has developed a more sophisticated relationship with fear. The things she’s scared of have deeper meaning, threats have causes, danger has a face. The squeaky hinge isn’t a mystery, it’s the boogeyman. And so, as she contemplates the isolation of a closed door that was once just a gate, the closing means something bigger than it used to, the solitude becomes more ominous, the denial more vast. Why would I choose to inspire that kind of fear in my child? If my child is begging for mercy, I am clearly doing this wrong.
Does the punishment fit the crime? The difference between correcting a two-year-old and punishing a four-year-old is that the two-year-old knows less about being a human being in society. It was all a lot easier when things were more Pavlovian, but Kina’s no dog (except when she wants to be), and the psychology of behavioral adjustment is now so much less abstract—it’s an emotional struggle, and I’m far more drawn in than I used to be.
The power dynamic of punishment is daunting. I can put Kina in her room, and she can put me in mine, but only one of us can hold the door closed. I’m trying all the time to understand what it means to exercise that power, and how enormous those gestures are to a child. It’s not just the closing of the door, either; it’s what you do when the door is opened again. I know almost by rote now that when a kid comes out of time out, you neither scold nor comfort them. You sit the kid down and calmly explain to her what happened and why you put her in time out, and you declare the whole episode over. The experience shouldn’t linger. You’ve spoken to her inner monster, and the monster knows its boundaries.
But the monster is part of her—part of all of us. The inner impulse to strike somebody who has wronged you is as natural as breathing. She can’t understand at all why I’m teaching her to resist those impulses. I can’t explain civilization, or why we’ve all decided not to hit each other on the ears; it seems like a great idea not to, but that’s a difficult truism to navigate with somebody who is still learning about fear. Maybe the problem is that I don’t understand what qualifies me to teach her who to be; on most days, I’m baffled by it.
When did we decide it was my obligation to usher out her inner monster? What role does my own monster play in that lesson? Who is that monster?
I’m sorry, kid. It’s over now. Let’s read a book.