Ever wonder about the future? I just got a raw glimpse of it and it wasn’t during the presidential debates. It wasn’t in the latest Dow Jones numbers or even in cyberspace.
It was in a city park on on a sunny afternoon. There were picnickers on green lawns, families feeding squawking ducks, bikers and joggers cruising winding concrete paths.
And, just over there, was a parent going about the time-honored task of crippling his child. I watched in awe: One generation damaging the next.
Not physically. Not even viciously. But enough.
It doesn’t take much.
The kid, maybe 7, was planted in black in-line skates, each one the size of his head. With their high, stiff boots they were nearly as heavy as he was.
It had to be his first time, or at least his first try at anything beyond standing up. He was excited, barely upright and clearly a little scared.
But what first caught my eye was another expression, one woefully out of place for a little boy at the park:
He looked worried.
What also caught my eye was his dad - I assume it was his dad - and I must confess that I didn’t like what I saw. Around 30, medium height, with a sturdy, semimuscular build, he immediately struck me as an aging bantam rooster with too much still to prove.
Of course I’m being unfair. But I’d heard him earlier yelling roughly at his wife - if she was his wife - in front of the boy and his sister. There was a brittleness about him, a tenseness in the way he strutted along, shirtless in blue jeans and sideburns, that made even me worry.
But at what? What could be amiss on this sunny afternoon? When I glanced over, I saw the little boy struggling to stay vertical as his dad walked quickly beside him, holding his arm and shouting encouragement.
Wait. Look again: Dad isn’t holding the shaky boy up, he’s pulling him along too fast down a short dip in the path. Listen: Dad isn’t cheering the boy on, he’s berating him. Of course the kid falls, again.
Dad stands and looks down.
Dad isn’t pleased.
A few minutes later I notice them again. Dad sat down heavily at the top of a grassy slope and ordered the boy to climb up. “You’re on your own now. It’s sink or swim,” he said. “Push off with your back foot - you know how.”
The sweating little boy tried. And tried. And … finally collapsed limply in a heap and burst out crying.
“Why are you crying,” Dad demanded loudly for all the world to hear, without moving from his perch. Through his tears, the boy said an ant bit him. I didn’t believe it and neither did Dad.
“Get up! Get up!” Dad yelled, as the kid writhed on the mowed green grass. Finally, Dad descended and pulled the weeping boy to his feet.
When I saw them again, Dad was carrying the skates as he, the woman and two children headed towards the parking lot.
“I’m not laughing at you,” he said roughly. “Everybody looks funny trying to skate. Didn’t you ever see ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’?”
Then Dad said, “If you do, I’m going to slap you.” I’m not sure whom Dad was threatening. He had several targets to choose from.
All in all, quite a family outing: Dad managed to dash the child’s hopes of pleasing his father, to humiliate him in public, to set impossibly high standards, to emphasize the boy’s inadequacy and to fuel his fears about the harsh world in which he’s fated to dwell.
To plant the seed of failure and bitterness deep and early.
Do I overreact? Maybe, but I’m not branding Dad a monster, a villain, a cliched child-abuser fit for a TV cop show.
Maybe, in fact, the man was doing his best to be a father. Most likely, he was simply doing as was done to him. How else do we learn to be parents?
And so, in turn, this little boy learns. As millions of others learn - about parenting, about relating to others, about pain and anger.
It was just another afternoon at the park. Bill Clinton wasn’t there, neither was Bob Dole. Or Bill Gates or Michael Jordan.
Just me and Dad. And the future.
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