Are we a good dad?

by Matt Olson

A number of recent events in the news have made me question my role as a dad. My daughter, Mira,  is now an adult, married to a wonderful man, starting her own business, and otherwise thriving. Like all of us, she has anxious days, struggles with stress, and gets walloped by unexpected events. When you see someone that talented and motivated and disciplined, you have to wonder if you helped shape her; and you have to wonder where you screwed up. The recent news events in question have to do, of course, with the problem of corporal punishment. Is it OK to beat on your child? Does it do any good? What could be wrong with a little, old-fashioned, Biblical thumping? I could go on listening forever to professional athletes reminisce about how they were abused and how it helped make them the sociopaths that they are and how they are passing that great tradition on to their kids. 

Here's the truth. We "spanked" my daughter 5 times in her life. Never used a tool for the job. Always with the flat of a hand. The only time her Mom hit was her was to knock a tube of potentially toxic oil paint out of her mouth. Seems like it could have been a good idea.  My first attempt at spanking came when she was about 4 or so. She was determined to disembowel all of her stuffed toys... why, I am not sure. First I asked her to stop. Next I told her to stop. Next I warned her that she would receive her first spanking with 3, count them, 3 swats if she kept emptying her toys of their viscera. When I finally pushed this preposterous ritual to conclusion and made her bend over my lap, I was laughing so hard that the swats on her behind were meaningless. She knew it; and so did I. 

The episode in the snow was her second spanking. We had a big snowfall in the great White North, and I had to go out to shovel the sidewalk. The streets had been plowed, so there was a bit of traffic on our busy street in South Minneapolis. Mira wanted to come out and "help" me shovel. So be it. Bundle her up in a paralyzing snowsuit, and out we go. I asked her to stay close and, above all, to stay out of the street. She grinned and nodded and waited for me to let my guard down. As soon as I started shoveling, she was headed out into the street. I grabbed her and reminded her about the street problem. As soon as I was back on the shovel, she was headed out to the street again. This time, I turned her toward the sidewalk and gave her a slap on her heavily padded rear end with a heavily gloved winter hand. This, of course, accelerated her toward the safety of the sidewalk. Even better, she whirled around to see where this slap on the butt came from. I whirled dramatically with her. "What just happened? Did you feel that?" She did not venture out onto that dangerous street with its butt slaps again.

There were other corporal moments, but they all had the same comical quality. One evening, when she was in the psychosis of 13 and 14 year-old girls, she was really razzing on me about money. Why didn't I make more so that she could have more? Indeed. I threw a spoon (with peanut butter) at her. She remembers this differently. She still thinks I threw a knife at her. I know that I did not. And there's no way to change her memory of that event. I will always be sorry. Important part was that I missed by a foot. And I was the one who had to clean up the peanut butter.

Onward. The question seems to be "Where did I learn to be a dad?" The obvious answer is that I learned from my own father, and he learned from his, and on and on. Usually, there are no textbooks or classes for this, and television is not the place to learn. Make up your own examples here.

My father was the child of Norwegian immigrants. His father had changed his name at least 3 times to get into the United States around 1900. No explanation for why. I suspect he was running from somebody in the old country and needed to hide. What I knew about my father's childhood was not really pretty. His mother, all 4'10" of her, was the primary family disciplinarian. She did not spank any of the 6 children on the farm. She punched. She punched right in the nose, and she knocked her kids down and out. Once, upon learning to fear this little woman, I made some remark or other about how mean or sad or awful that was. My father's comment was something like "You would rather have her punch you in the face than have grandpa get mad." He and all his siblings had a deep, horrible fear of their father.

When he was in sixth grade or junior high, my dad joined the school choir. If I remember correctly, he also sang in the church choir. He had a love for classical music, and would often turn the family radio (no TV or internet in those days) to a station that played classical music. For these unmanly transgressions, his father referred to him as "The Sissy." "Tell The Sissy to shovel snow." or "Tell The Sissy to pass the potatoes. " The result was predictable. My father grew up to be a vicious son-of-a-bitch. 

I am the only person that I know-- for a fact-- who was ever punished by my father's father--my grandfather. I was about 10 years old for that visit to the grandparents. By that time, they had a television, but in those days, TVs were a chore. The picture would sometimes be shifted right or left of center. There was a little dial or knob for "Horizontal Hold," and one turned it to center the picture. Sometimes, the picture would flip up or down, and we had to use the "Vertical Hold" to make it stop. 

My grandfather was in his upper 80s at the time. He would get up in the morning, have a glass of sweet wine, eat breakfast, put a chew of tobacco in his cheek, walk to the living room with his cane, and sit down with his television. He would sit there for about 3 hours. He did not move, nor did he spit tobacco juice. On the morning in question, the Vertical Hold was not behaving, and the picture on the screen was flipping endlessly upward. It was a serious headache. I got up, told him I would fix it, and kneeled down in front of his television. He said clearly "Don't touch it." I started to say "I'm just..." and all of a sudden, he was beating  the hell out of me with his cane. No idea how he got across the room that fast. Later when I told my parents what had happened, my dad said "Told you." Lots of sympathy there. My grandfather never mentioned it. Too bad he died before he could apologize. I'm sure it was on his bucket-list.

My father, as referenced above, was vicious. He hit me with whatever was handy-- usually too much trouble for the old "take-off-the-belt" ritual. I got clobbered with a length of rope, a shovel, and other random tools. I received no orders to go and cut a switch for him. He relished the thrill of the hitting occasion. Waiting for me to choose his weapon would never do. Now is the time for hitting.  On one fine day, we were driving from Holbrook to Winslow on old Highway 66. I was in the back seat of the car; my dad was driving, and my mother was the front passenger. I must have said something... no idea what it was. The old man held onto the steering wheel with his left hand and took a swing at me with his right. He missed, and I made the mistake of laughing out loud. He pulled off the road and stopped to make sure he didn't miss again. Great fun.  And I was still laughing when he beat hell out of me. We can spare other specifics. You may get the idea from this little snapshot. 

Am we a bad dad because, between the two of us, we spanked our daughter 4 or 5 times? I might be the wrong person to ask, but I say No. Pretty damn good given how I learned to be a dad. Sissy.