That Time I Yelled At My Kid in Public: A Story of Parenting In Progress

I haven’t been posting much, because aside from “Where I am now in my interminable monkeying with this new project I haven’t actually gotten ready to write yet,” I haven’t felt like I had much to say.

And then I remembered that one of the things I most love about Harlan Ellison–and yes, I get that he’s made mistakes, he’s still a brilliant writer, let’s move on–is his ability and willingness to expose his viscera in his introductions.

Well, if he can do it, I can, right?  I guess we’ll see.  So here, have an anecdote from an incident that happened a few years ago, and why it illustrates what I most love about my family:

Sometimes, parenting is hard.  Sometimes it’s even harder.

When my daughter was five or so, she and I went camping with my family–my aunt, my uncle, my sisters, and some family friends who are basically family.  Tegan did great the first day, on the drive up to the campsite, and she had fun that first night, but on the second day she got hit with a bout of “I want my mama.”

Now, Tegan is what most people would call “stubborn,” just like her mom and I, but which experts would call “Holy fuck, she must be Scottish!” She started needling me about how she wanted to go home, because she wanted her mom.  She just Would Not Stop.

At first, I was able to reason with her and handle it, but it got difficult really fast.  I was feeling overwhelmed by being the sole caretaker of her, being unable to relax, and dealing with her nearly-constant demands for this or that.  And after a good long while of hearing “I want to go home!” I was ready to burst.

Once more, I tried to reason with her.  Mama was having some quiet alone time, and we needed to let her have that.  We were having fun, and if she would just relax, and put her socks and shoes on for me, I’d take her to the playground, and we would have dinner, and then go to sleep, and we’d see mama tomorrow.

She was having none of it.

And finally, I snapped, and screamed “Knock it off!”

Now, when I say I screamed, I’m not telling you I raised my voice, and I didn’t yell.  I outright screamed, in a five year old child’s face, to knock it off.  At the top of my lungs.

Yeah. Parenting fail.

As soon as I did it, I knew I’d fucked up.  Her little face was in tears, and I was feeling like the biggest shithead in the universe, and the worst dad ever.  I couldn’t even dare to look away from her; I knew everyone would be looking at me in horror.

And then I felt a hand on my shoulder, and my aunt said, gently, “Take a breath,” and steered me back to everyone else.  And my sister Blair, took my daughter, and said “Hey, let’s go play and give dad a minute.”  And my sister Brooke handed me a beer, and said “Sit.”

Nobody lectured me.  Nobody said anything, except “It’s hard, sometimes, huh?” And I talked about feeling overwhelmed, and how I wasn’t sure how my daughter was going to grow up without hating me, because I just don’t have patience.  And the family friend told me stories about her losing it at her kids, and that they turned out pretty good (which they did).  And when Tegan came back, I gave her a hug, and she sat in my lap until it was time to eat, and gave me kisses.

That was the first time I ever really lost my temper with my kid.  I wish I could say it was the last, but that would be a lie.  But when it happens, I do what I did then–I apologize for losing my patience, and for making her afraid, and then deal with the actual problem.  I’m getting better now and heading off that kind of loss of temper and cooling down, but that’s a thing you learn over time–I wish I’d known it then, but I was still pretty new at the whole “parenting someone who can walk and talk and has her own mind and personality now” stage.

I just talked to Tegan about this incident–and she has no memory of it at all.  But she remembers other times, and she knows that my temper is a lot like hers–sometimes it gets the better of us, but we keep getting better at controlling it.

My daughter and I are super close.  She’s lost it at me, I’ve lost it at her, but when it happens, we handle it.  And we heal.

And the thing about my family that story illustrates is that we’re there for each other.  We don’t talk about how close we are, and we don’t generally say shit like “Family is Important,” but when the chips are down, we are there for each other.

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About Michael Johnston

Father of a third grader, high school English teacher, writer. Forty-three years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA
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