My daughter and I had already waited 15 minutes for the one video game at the arcade she wanted to play: Jurassic Park. Two huge 50-year-old men were still inside the game, yelling and laughing as they machine-gunned raptors in the face. The screen kept encouraging the men to swipe their play card to continue the game at their current level. So they did, never once turning to the side to see whether anyone else wanted to play. So, I introduced myself.
True parental teaching moments are rare. We utter statements to our kids about the right ways to think and act in situations, but how often do we get to demonstrate them in real life? Here were two men, acting selfishly, who needed to be aware of the consequences of their actions. So I motioned to my daughter and they understood. One of the men held up his finger and told us they were on their last level and would be done shortly.
I had proven to my daughter that it’s right to stand up for yourself when treated unfairly by people lacking common courtesy — even when it’s uncomfortable or scary to do so.
Except that it didn’t work. Fifteen more minutes later, the men were still swiping.
So the lesson now became standing up to bullies. If we all did a better job of calling out grown men when they behave like children, maybe the world would be a better place. I spoke up to the men again, more forcefully, asking them to please stop swiping.
One of them got out of the machine, stood up, and started yelling about how he’ll spend his money the way he wants to. He was about 6-foot-7. I am not. I held my ground. Eventually, my daughter and I got the machine. Bullies are used to others backing down anyway, I explained to my daughter.
Although my daughter’s play lasted less than 90 seconds, the victory tasted sweet. Until I proudly regaled my wife with the story and watched her mortified reaction.
“There are 100 other machines in that arcade,” she told me.
She was right, as she often is. And, as I looked back, the many ways in which I was wrong suddenly dawned on me. I could have taught my daughter that life isn’t always fair but we can make our fun. I could have shown her the wonders of air hockey and recounted my best games as a kid. I could have taught her that showing patience and courtesy means even more in the company of others who don’t.
Our pasts cloud how we see right and wrong. In mine, I was thrown into lockers and schoolyard trash cans for being a foot shorter than my eighth-grade class. So, to me, whenever one of the options is standing up for yourself, that seems like the better one. In Back to the Future, everything about George McFly’s 1985 life improved the moment his 1955 self-clocked Biff in the face for attacking Lorraine. Everything. So I guess I’m always looking for that opportunity to go back in time and land my punch.
I actually did land that punch once, and it didn’t change a thing. Allen Wellman used to bully me every day at the eighth-grade bus stop. “You’re dead!” was how my morning usually began after a kiss goodbye from my mom. One day, I punched him square in the jaw.
Immediately after my punch, I regretted it. I think I even apologized. Allen was shocked. I was shocked. Everyone who watched was shocked, frankly. And the bullying didn’t even stop. (After that, his taunt changed to: “I think we have a score to settle!”)
The reality is that no one is going to throw my 7-year-old daughter into a trash can. It’s a different time and my daughter is not me. And the lessons I ended up teaching her with my behavior at the arcade were the wrong ones: impatience, jealousy, and a sense of entitlement towards things that are out of her control. The list continues: winning is more important than kindness; that the world can and does revolve around her desires.
This made me think about what other wrong things our actions teach our kids in spite of what we tell them. They teach them that it’s okay to bad-mouth people behind their back. They teach them that expressing compassion for the less fortunate is an acceptable substitute for volunteering, because there’s never any time to volunteer. They teach them that lying is fine when it’s only about their age and it saves us $4 at Souplantation.
And our actions teach them that warning others not to text while driving makes up for doing it ourselves.
True parental teaching moments happen all the time. We’re just not always aware of the choices we already make to utilize them.
Now that I think about it, if my daughter had witnessed her inappropriate father get punched in the face — by one of two grown men who had already spent 30 minutes clearly telegraphing a lack of regard for any appropriate societal conduct — maybe that would have been the best lesson I could have taught her in that teachable moment.