A child’s misdeeds lead to a heart-melting question

My least favorite part of parenting is punishing my children.

blushing emoticonAs any doting dad worth his weight in ice cream sprinkles, I like to believe that Celeste and Gavin are perfect and can do no wrong. But then the sound of reality shakes me out of my daydream — or is it the sound of them arguing over a toy? — and I’m left to decide what punishment to hand down.

Of course, their misdeeds are simple at their age (9 and 5) and fairly irregular, so the punishment must fit the crime and the child.

They don’t pick up after themselves? Playtime stops until they clean up (even if I’m the one having fun playing with them).

They don’t eat their veggies at dinner? No dessert will follow (even if I’m the one hankering for a piece of chocolate pie. Fatherhood is full of sacrifices.).

They run around the house with a ball after we ask them to stop? We take away the ball and send them to their rooms, which ironically are filled with toys. (Yeah, it’s kind of like sending Brer Rabbit to the briar patch, but they don’t know that story, so it’s OK. Right?)

Corporal punishment is never an option. I don’t understand how physically harming children teaches them anything other than it’s OK to hit them when they do something wrong, even if a parent refers to the violence as the benign-sounding “spanking.” It teaches children that violence is an answer and to fear the punishment, not to understand why their action was wrong, which is an important lesson and the more difficult message to send.

I dread having to punish my children, but when I must I tell myself it’s for their own good. They must learn boundaries and develop a moral compass, lessons that begin early in life as they play with each other.

But at only 5, Gavin has a unique ability to melt my heart when I have to punish him and make me forget all about the life lessons he must learn.

If he believes I am about to become angry with him, he will stand before me and look at me with his two big, green eyes open wide and his mouth on the edge of a quiver. He will bring his hands up to his chest with his fingers barely touching, as though his nails were dancing on each other.

“Are you mad at me?” he might ask, which I might be depending on the situation.

Sometimes I’ll answer him straight away and others I’ll ask him if he’s done anything that would make me angry. His answer varies widely depending on the situation, but in the end he nearly always asks the same heart-melting question: “Do you still love me?”

It doesn’t matter what he’s done — whether he’s made a mess of his toys, ignored me, or pestered his older sister for the umpteenth time — he invariably asks me if I still love him moments after I scold him.

I don’t know what makes him think I might not. I tell both my children at least three times a day how much I love them. In fact, I’ve been known to call them over to me without cause or warning to let them know.

“Come here, Gavin,” I often say. “I have something very important to tell you.”

When I started the habit years ago, he would drop everything and come running over to hear what was so important. He would look at me eagerly as if I were going to give him an expensive Christmas present.

“What is it?” he would ask on the edge of his toes.

I would pull him close to me, and whisper softly in his ear, “I love you.”

“That’s it?” he would ask through a scrunched face, as though I had given him a raisin cookie when I promised him one with chocolate chips.

“What do you mean ‘That’s it’? What could be more important?”

He would walk away without answering to return to his blocks or coloring book — whatever I pulled him away from without cause.

He knows the drill by now, however, and he won’t come over to me anymore. When I tell him I have something important to say to him, he simply replies, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. You love me. Blah, blah, blah.”

Even after I punish or scold him, I always tell him how much I love him, so I can’t imagine why he would ever think I might not. I have never led him to believe otherwise.

Yet as I write this, a small part of me wonders if Gavin’s question and the timing of it are somehow a young boy’s attempt to manipulate his old man — a thought planted the previous day by a colleague when we were talking about the topic for this column.

I quickly brush off such thoughts, however, because Gavin asks the question with such sincerity and a look of true concern in his eyes.

Besides, it’s not like he’s trying to con me out of my last cookie. I’m on to that look. Shoot, I’m the one who taught him that look.

This is a repost of a column that appeared in The Gazette on Sept. 23, 2010. Gavin is now 7, and still finds ways to melt my heart when I have to punish him.

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