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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Slamming doors and bad, awful days

One of the many amazing, ceaselessly interesting things about being a parent is this: Your children will sometimes remember things that you intended for them to remember, even when you've forgotten.

On Monday of this week, my youngest daughter Molly, a seventh-grader, had what my family calls a "bad, awful day" at school. (The phrase is from a Sesame Street book, Grover's Bad, Awful Day. Some small portion of you readers are nodding right now, saying to yourselves, "Oh, yeah, that's the one where Grover stepped in the chewing gum, lost his rubber rain-boot, et cetera." Yes, that's the one. It's easy to confuse with the one in which Ernie and Bert are so angry at each other for not meeting under the statue in the park to fly kites.) When I picked her up from school and took her to her mom's house, Molly stormed off to her room, slamming the door in her older sister Sarah's face. "Molly Grace Dyer!" yelled Sarah Kathleen Dyer through the door, "Don't you know how dangerous it is to slam doors?"

"Dangerous?" I asked, genuinely perplexed.

This prompted Sarah to recall aloud at some length an incident when she (Sarah) was a much, much younger child — maybe three or four years old at the most, and thus an incident from at least a dozen years ago, in a previous century. Like my other three children, Sarah is, has always been, and will always be a passionate person. And as a toddler she was much inclined to slam doors.

So it was that the particular incident she related this week was one in which, after one such slamming, I'd fetched from our refrigerator's meat drawer an uncooked hot dog wiener that I'd first put into a Glad bag, and that I'd then stuck halfway through the crack between her bedroom door and its door-frame when the door was half-way opened. "Here, Sarah," I'd pronounced with parental tendentiousness, "is what can happen when you slam doors!" And then I'd slammed her bedroom door on that bagged hot dog wiener — BANG! "That could be your mother's finger!" I'd said, with utmost seriousness, while scooping the shredded meat byproducts out of the baggie and dropping them dramatically, in severed and exploded pieces, onto the doorway floor.

Toddler Sarah's powers of imagination were such that she already did not need further ketchup-based special effects to complete the lesson. She burst into tears, launched herself face-down onto her bed — and rarely, if ever, slammed her bedroom door again (at least until she was fifteen, and since then she's done it only carefully, for effect).

I had completely forgotten this entire incident. It took my nearly fifty-year-old neural pathways a full half hour or more to summon back all the details. And yet, Sarah's much younger, crisper, and more capable neural pathways brought it back in an instant. And she told it to her sister.

Slamming doors can be dangerous. And I am genuinely and continually awed by the power of entirely oral familial histories.

And by my children.

Posted by Beldar at 06:50 AM in Family | Permalink


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(1) stan made the following comment | Oct 24, 2007 7:12:29 AM | Permalink

Every day is a teaching opportunity. And my kids teach me so much.

(2) Old Coot made the following comment | Oct 24, 2007 8:41:13 AM | Permalink

Mom always told me she'd get her revenge when I had kids. Mom was correct.

(3) nk made the following comment | Oct 24, 2007 9:53:49 AM | Permalink

Great story, Beldar. And no, it's not a belated response to your "trolling for compliments" in an earlier thread. It's sincere.

(4) DWPittelli made the following comment | Oct 24, 2007 7:00:51 PM | Permalink

Is anyone seriously surprised that a child's traumatic memory would persist for such a period? Even with a hot dog, this slamming event would be at least as traumatic to a small child as would a real car accident to an adult. And who forgets those?

(5) Beldar made the following comment | Oct 24, 2007 8:00:19 PM | Permalink

Mr. Pittelli, if you believe Sarah was "traumatized" by this lesson, you either misunderstood the story (in which case, perhaps the fault is in my writing), or you have a definition of "traumatic" with which I am in profound disagreement. My daughter stopped crying in perhaps three minutes, which was about the same length of time it typically took her to wind down from her tantrums when she'd been slamming doors.

She stopped slamming doors, though. She and her siblings and parents were all spared the real trauma of someone actually losing a finger, of which there was a genuine risk before her behavior changed. This became not a traumatic memory, but rather a vivid and educational one, which is exactly what I intended. I'd do the same thing again in a New York minute.

(6) DWPittelli made the following comment | Oct 25, 2007 7:30:47 AM | Permalink

I think a fear and a visual image which causes crying for 3 minutes could be called "traumatic." (After all, grown ups such as soldiers and EMTs get "trauma" or PTSD even while uninjured, from watching others get injured.)

But let us leave aside the semantics of the continuum between mild anxiety and abject terror, for I do not judge you negatively for your action. Indeed, I have a 5- and a 4-year-old, and I might do exactly the same thing with a hot-dog if they get into the habit of slamming doors. (Thanks for the tip!)

I do, as needed, warn my children, in very clear and serious and graphic terms, about things which might kill them, such as heads in plastic bags, etc. Sometimes I even feign an exaggerated emotional response of fear or sadness, to make them feel the same emotion. Generally such acting would be manipulative and improper, but in these sorts of life-and-death cases it seems morally proper to me, since I would of course truly have such emotions if one were to die or be seriously injured, and because I think the acting will prevent the harm.

And while (I think) I have never thus caused crying for more than a few seconds, I wouldn't hesitate to make the lesson harsher, and cause the 3 minutes of crying, if their behavior or my intuition led me to believe that such might be necessary to protect them from dangerous error.

(7) nk made the following comment | Oct 25, 2007 12:02:07 PM | Permalink

Why I like Beldar's story. Two personal anecdotes:

1. I went to wake up my four-year old for preschool and saw large brown stains on her pillow. I asked, "Did you throw up chocolate milk?" She said, "I have a booboo". I looked closely. She had fallen out of bed during the night and split her eyebrow (three stitches) on the nightstand. She just went back to sleep.

2. She injured one of her fingernails and it started growing out. We were very careful with it to let the old one grow out as the new one was growing in. One day she tells me, "Daddy, I have a new fingernail". She had simply ripped out the about one-third remaining old fingernail while playing and not given it a thought.

Kids don't know what's right and natural in the world and what's not. They need and, thank God, trust adults to tell them. Beldar's lesson with the hot dog, in my opinion, was a far more effective lesson than if his little girl had actually got her hand caught in the door.

(8) Beldar made the following comment | Oct 25, 2007 3:22:20 PM | Permalink

Clearly the fault was indeed in a lack of clarity to my writing.

Sarah had been having a tantrum over something — I have no recollection what, but it was almost certainly over not getting her way over something trivial — which had led her to storm off to her room and slam the door. She might have slammed it more than once. That's what I mean when I said she was "into" door-slamming in a big way. That tantrum included tears, of course.

But the tears after the lesson were almost entirely the product of her remorse over the idea that she might have badly hurt someone. (I think I had suggested in my example that it might have been her mother, but I could as easily have said that the exploded hot-dog could have been my finger, or Kevin's, or infant Adam's — and she would have had the same reaction). To a smaller extent, some of the remaining tears were general tension-release, too, I'm sure.

My slamming the door hadn't frightened her. She liked the big noise that even she, as a little girl, could make by slamming the door herself. And the exploded hot-dog wasn't scary in and of itself, but only to the extent it triggered her imagination (which was, and remains, excellent). If she was "traumatized," then, it was from a realization, a very sudden and vivid one prompted by something memorable and out of the ordinary ("the time Daddy put the hot-dog in the door-crack," which even in our household wasn't a common sort of event).

I'm not trying to proselytize anyone or promote my wonderful parenting skills by telling this story. To the contrary, I had completely forgotten the entire incident. My point was the one in bold-face in the introductory paragraph.

(9) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Oct 25, 2007 4:59:48 PM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Dyer: Please, take your "Dyer Legal" shingle and put it on that leaky spot on your roof. Give up this attorney business and set up shop as a book author. Your first title should be:


You have a marvelous anecdote to begin with. Great story, with a great result.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(10) The Drill SGT made the following comment | Oct 25, 2007 8:49:19 PM | Permalink

I assume when you say you slammed the door, you had the wiener out at the swinging side of the door?

As a bit of history, when I was 5, playing in school, I allowed my finger to get in between the door and the frame on a big steel bathroom door.

Unlike your presumptive demo, my finger was at the hung side of the door and frame. I can testify that the mechanical advantage of 36 inches of steel door on a 1 inch lever is pretty awesome.

It crushed that finger pretty flat, but I recovered all use of it. that ortho line about kids bones healing if you can get them into the same room? true!

(11) Beldar made the following comment | Oct 25, 2007 9:27:13 PM | Permalink

Thanks very much, Mr. Koster, that's high praise.

Drill SGT: I used the same side of the door from which it was hung. I may be a lawyer, but I paid attention in high school physics. This was a lesson in applied physics, geared to a toddler.

(12) Carol Herman made the following comment | Oct 26, 2007 7:10:49 PM | Permalink

Py, gowt! YOu worked that "door" like a jury demonstration. Free of a defense attorney. Yelling "I object!" And, a judge, who couldn't get off the floor to bang his gavel.

Not that "slamming doors" are all that effective, when you're still young enough to live "rent free."

So, what did give your daughter the feeling that she was having a "dangerous time of it" at school?

Ya know. Doctors aren't allowed to practice on their families.

I never knew why!

Till sticking the hotdog ... into the door frame ... at its hinges ... showed up.

It was a great lawyers' trick!

Women, on the other hand, as those hormones develop ... are gonna spend time spread out on beds ... crying over nothin!

This doesn't clear up. It's monthly. I can be outrageous. And, gaining controls over emotional outbursts ... needs something else.

I wonder how Freud would'a done it? His daughter was so loyal!

That, too, is part of the mix.

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