(Jeff Jacoby writes an annual column in the form of a letter to his son Caleb.)
My beloved Caleb,
I used to think I had this fatherhood thing down pat. For your first five or six years, you were such a charming and lovable kid -- friendly, bright, cheerful, affectionate -- that I imagined Mama and I must be doing everything right. I figured we were natural born parents, the way other people are natural born pianists or natural born first basemen.
But then -- quite to my surprise -- the sweet and lively Caleb we were so pleased to take all the credit for was abducted by aliens and replaced with a sulky, sarcastic grouch we didn't recognize. Over the course of the past year, Mama and I have repeatedly found ourselves wondering: Who are you, and what have you done with our son?
OK, maybe that's putting it a little strongly. You're still a terrific child, and most of the time it's a joy to be your father. I'm delighted by your interests and enthusiasms, from your voracious reading to your strength as a swimmer. It's great that you're still innocent enough to enjoy a "Winnie the Pooh" movie, yet sophisticated enough to play chess and make up crossword puzzles. I savor the moments we spend learning together. I like the fact that you still ask for a story almost every time we go for a walk.
Most wonderful of all this past year has been watching you get the hang of your new role as a big brother. When we adopted Micah a year ago, there was no way to know how you would react to the presence of a sibling. I can't tell you how happy it makes us to see what a devoted, generous brother you've become. I love how willingly you play with Micah and how readily you make him laugh -- and judging from his eagerness to be with you, he obviously loves it too.
But as splendid as you so often are, Caleb, you can also be quite awful. At times your manner is shockingly disrespectful. You mimic Mama and make faces when I scold you. You respond to criticism by laughing or rolling your eyes, or you mutter "Whatever" with all the disdain at your command. You get surly or angry and snap at us rudely -- you've even written poison-pencil notes and left them for us to find ("I hate you. You're a bad mother.") If I didn't know you had just turned 8, I'd think you were going on 14. Behavior like this I wasn't expecting till you hit adolescence. If this is the way you act in second grade, what are you going to be like in high school?
I wish I knew what was causing this acting out. Is it a subconscious reaction to the arrival of your brother? The bad influence of certain kids in school? An unavoidable symptom of belonging to the species homo sapiens? All three, I suppose. Especially the last. As one experienced mother -- mine -- likes to say, children don't have to be taught how to hit, bite, lie, sneak, or talk back. They have to be taught not to.
And that, I am realizing much more vividly than I used to, is easier said than done.
When I was your age, discipline consisted mostly of spanking and the threat of being spanked, and on the whole I'd say that my siblings and I turned out all right. But I've discovered that I really don't like hitting as a form of punishment -- lashing out in anger makes me feel like a bully, and it doesn't feel good to bully someone I love. I don't want you to grow up in fear, behaving well only because you're afraid of getting hurt if you don't. Nor do I want you to learn from my example that the way to express anger is to hurt someone else.
But Mama and I do want you to learn that bad behavior leads to bad consequences -- just as we often use incentives and rewards to teach you that good behavior leads to good consequences. So we cast about for more effective forms of discipline. When you insult a teacher or a babysitter, we make you write a letter of apology. When you act crudely at mealtime, we send you away from the table. For other offenses you've had to write punishment sentences, or lost the use of a toy, or been sent to bed 30 minutes early. Once, appalled to learn that you had punched and hurt a girl in your class, we invoked the "nuclear option" -- one week of not being allowed to read for pleasure. It felt sacrilegious to use reading in that way, but you haven't hit anyone since.
When I was 8, it was obvious to me that discipline fell hardest on the one being disciplined. Now that I'm the father of an 8-year-old, I know better. It's tough to be punished, but it's much tougher to punish wisely -- strongly enough to correct, gently enough to do no harm. You don't understand what I mean? Believe me, Caleb, one day you will.
All my love,