Why my kids should be a tiny bit frightened of me

I believe that I am, on the whole, a good father to my three girls, aged seven, five and three. I love them unconditionally; I toil hard to provide both in and out of the home; I comfort them when sick; I read to them, play dolls, schools and shops; and, when I’ve got the energy, I play the clown.

But when the need arises, I scare them a little, too. It’s a last-resort measure when my repeated messages aren’t registering. It could be that they aren’t coming to the table for dinner; or to the bath; or to bed; or, really, any of that humdrum stuff, but there’s no flowering around it: when they’ve pushed me to the edge, they know.

It’s an approach that goes beyond a raised voice and the threat of no dessert or banishing the iPad: it’s the shimmer of menace in my eyes; the low growl in my throat.

It’s not a masculine or male-ego thing, but rather a reinforcement of my belief that the tiniest part of them should be frightened of me – their father and, for the time being, their co-boss – and that ramifications await if they push things any further. It’s not about getting physical, it’s about boundary-setting.

The ploy has been a whole lot more effective than the previous fall-back position: shouting the house down. My partner and I have had an on-the-fly approach to parenting which netted a long stretch of bad returns come the witching hour and, occasionally, in our girls’ public behaviour. As if in quiet protest to our respective strict upbringings, discipline hasn’t been our strong suit. And although I twigged early that the no-nonsense approach of our parents’ generation had some definite merit, I mostly fell into line to avoid adding more layers to the noise. As one dad-group mate quipped: it’s easier being a yes-man than living a life of conflict.

But as each of girls outgrew nappies and assumed their own traits and agendas, we lost grip, fast, and so I found myself revisiting my own childhood experience.

The tiniest part of them should be frightened of me…

My father, growing up, was a distant, yet powerful presence. Distant in emotional attachment; powerful in the threat that he posed. He worked his guts out to provide, and was ever-reliable on weekends while other dads went mysteriously to ground when it came to helping with junior sport or assisting with school working bees.

But he also had a temper, and if pushed, was a scary proposition.  If I was especially naughty, my exasperated mother would deliver the fearful words: “That’s it – you just wait until your father gets home”.

It was, thankfully, a threat that she rarely carried through, as in the time that would lapse until dad’s homecoming I’d be on my best behaviour, she’d have cooled down and the old man, often a half-dozen post-work pots to the good, would be none the wiser. Looking back, some tougher love was surely needed, but, despite being unyielding in most other areas of parenting, my mother had a strawberry-soft heart; she knew the mere threat of dad’s actions – the red mist in the eyes, the terse words, the raised hand, the undoing of the belt – was enough to reign me in. And if I ever did muck up in dad’s presence, I was lucky that he possessed a filter that some fathers don’t have when it comes to drawing the line at physicality beyond a smack.

We are poles apart, the old man and I, but I inherited the red mist. It’s a part of me that I loathe, and I’m mindful to keep it in check, often. But when it comes to natural instinct, particularly around child discipline, I’ve been as confused as the next rookie dad. The sands of parenting have shifted so much in recent decades that many blokes are pseudo-mothers. The emotion is to remain hidden even as the multi-tasking amps up, and whatever disciplinary messages are delivered from father to child are generally in line with those of the primary caregiver. It’s no surprise that children rule the roost in so many modern homes.

Whether it’s junk food, or screen time, or taking no for an answer, boundaries are imperative. They govern respect, morality and even love. My girls will learn to respect every person they encounter, including any strong and emotive (and very lucky) future men. And while I’ll continue to be a fun dad, I’ll be one whose children know that there’s a time and place for everything.

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