"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

New York Minute

A young mother and her son were fighting on the train this morning. The mother sat near me with an infant strapped into a harness that pressed into her bosom. She was heavyset with blond hair and a pug nose. Her son, a toddler, got up from his seat and stood at the pole. I hadn’t been paying attention but I noticed them when he turned around the pole and the mother grabbed him by the arm and pulled him back next to her.

“You don’t say that to me, do you understand?” she said.

He stood up and reached for the pole, just a few feet away. She grabbed him by the ear this time, pulled him back. He got up again and she grabbed his arm and yanked him. The boy was strong, had round cheeks and green eyes.

“Stop beating me,” he said.

An older woman sitting across from them looked up and smiled.

The mother laughed. “You think I’m beating you?”

He stood up again and she grabbed his arm and twisted.

“Stop beating me.”

This tug of war went on for a while.

“I’m not so terrible,” he said.

He continued to get up and she’d pulled him back. Then she said, “When you get to school I’m telling your teacher you are in a time out for the whole day. Time out when you get home. No remote control.”

He started to cry. He sat down. Another woman sitting across from them smiled too.

I couldn’t concentrate on the newspaper, kept reading the same sentence over and over.

Now, the boy was sobbing. “Please don’t tell my teacher.” He grabbed his mother.

“Oh, now you are going to hug me? Maybe you’ll think before you talk to me like that again.”

“Please don’t tell my teacher.”

“You are almost four-years-old, stop crying.”

He settled down after awhile but I couldn’t go back to reading. When they got off the train a few stops later I realized that I wasn’t breathing.

[Photo Credit: Masao Gozu]


1 ms october   ~  Jun 14, 2011 9:10 am

there is something so disconcerting when these issues play out in public.
you alright alex?

yesterday i was walking west on 22nd to go get the f and this pudgy blond kid who was probably 9 and his mom were arguing in the street because he was trying out for something and he thought his mom gave him bad instructions on what to do. it oscillated between exasperation, disgust, anger, reconciliation, embarrassment (on the kid's part since he knew i overheard the entire exchange).
it was sad because it seemed this was pretty typical for them - hopefully not though.

2 Ben   ~  Jun 14, 2011 9:18 am


3 Alex Belth   ~  Jun 14, 2011 9:23 am

Since I'm not a parent I'm really careful about not judging a parent-child conflict in public. I have no idea what happened before they got on the train or last night or any number of things. But this mother was a sadist.

I generally try to write and blog about warmth and connection, about tenderness and love. But that doesn't mean I think the world is a happy place.

4 ms october   ~  Jun 14, 2011 10:01 am

[3] yeah, i feel you on that.

5 Diane Firstman   ~  Jun 14, 2011 10:17 am

(big hug, Alex)

You need to pass a test to drive a car. You need to sign a license to get married. You need only know how to fornicate to be a parent.

When people get in a snit about gays being parents, I point them to stories like this, and note that unlike heteros, gays have to WANT to raise kids . . . there are no "accidents". And given the vitriol that the right wing has over gays and kids, you'd think they would have found instances of gay parents abusing their kids . . . and I haven't read any, have you?

(I'm sorry ... I'm digressing, and veering into political talk)

6 Alex Belth   ~  Jun 14, 2011 11:11 am

5) I hear you but I'm sure there are plenty of gay parents that are abusive as well. Point taken, though.

7 Normando   ~  Jun 14, 2011 11:56 am

Uggh - it's like a home movie. And now, as I parent, I struggle to strike the balance between reasonable discipline and going over the line. I have done well so far, but I am angry about how my past has made finding this balance even more difficult that it inherently already is.

I sure hope that boy's inner strength matches his physical strength. He's gonna need it.

8 MSM35   ~  Jun 14, 2011 11:59 am

Since we raised four and messed up plenty. I have no advice except my friends used to laugh at us before they had any. We enjoy being the wise ones now.
Is Montero coming up to replace Martin today? (the important stuff)

9 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Jun 14, 2011 12:43 pm

Wow, just wow.

She may well be a sadist, Alex but I'd be lying if I said that sadism wasn't a constant risk of parenthood, for me, anyway. Not sadism, exactly, but...it's so hard to explain...

The need to control my kids, to discipline them, establishes this continual dynamic of nuclear brinksmanship. Sometimes I find myself issuing perfectly reasonable ultimatums, other times, maybe a little disproportionate and peevish. But the point is, there is certainly a rush, both of relief and of raw power, that comes when the fucking kid *finally*, for the love of god, capitulates to parental authority.

Why am I saying this...

I think it's to do with the tears. Whenever I drive my kids to tears, there is always that satisfaction, no, the hope, that maybe, finally, this will be the last time such conflicts become death-matches. Of course, it never is and never will be and God help me when they're teenagers.

I guess my basic point is, I catch myself having little frissons of satisfaction that might be mistaken for sadism in moments like that.

Bloody hell, parenting is agony. Except when it's pure, unmitigated joy and love, which is often enough to keep the kids alive.

That said, yes, of course there are people who are just plain abusive, sadistic, whatever, but it's easy for the lines to start to blur on occasion, especially if a parent is overworked and unsupported.

10 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Jun 14, 2011 12:50 pm

Also, it is about the worst thing in the world to witness a parent verbally abusing their child. Just yesterday I heard a parent (the coach of my son's team, in fact) unload on his kid: "What the HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?!" I have no idea what it was about but he screamed and *I* was nervous by his rage.

I'm sure I offer variations on that to my kids ("Why would you do something like that," maybe) but "What the hell is wrong with you?" Somehow, to me, that seems to cross the line into verbal abuse.


As you say, Alex, the world is not a happy place.

11 Normando   ~  Jun 14, 2011 1:07 pm

[9] Amen. Well and bravely said.

Kids need to exert themselves, to be who they are, and to draw their own map. Parents need to make sure that in doing so, their kids don't physically or emotionally hurt themselves or others, and don't unduly mess up their lives, and figure out when to encourage, when to nudge, and when to draw lines. It is a power play, no matter what anyone says. If you're lucky, you can remember that it is way more than that and navigate accordingly. That said, I can't tell you the number of times a discussion about whether it's shorts-weather or not has quickly escalated into the Cuban Missle Crisis. This is not hyperbole -- me and my son are ready to go to the mat on whether it is too cold for shorts. Luckily, I've been able to catch myself before it gets too crazy thus far, and luckily my kids, if you can step outside the escalating cycle, can be pretty reasonable. But it ain't easy, and it ain't pretty.

To be clear though, this woman is twisted, not only in how she jerked her son's emotional chain, but then withheld consolation when he sought it, and berated him for crying.

12 Alex Belth   ~  Jun 14, 2011 1:19 pm

Yeah, it was her bullying that I was responding to. The kid was four not an adult. But it seems that kids respond to discipline and structure and rules from my limited knowledge.

13 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Jun 14, 2011 1:29 pm

[11] Thanks, Normando, and hear, hear. Yes, to be absolutely clear, that woman's behavior was twisted indeed. Emotional manipulation is never ok, nor is withholding consolation, nor is berating a child for crying.

Cuban Missile Crisis, my god. It's amazing how the most casual remark/instruction ("Oh, grab your sweater, it's cold outside!") can turn into exactly that. Just grab your fucking sweater, you little bastard! :)

The constant need for us as parents to anticipate conflict about such minor things so as to be one step ahead, ready to de-escalate while keeping the circus running smoothly...god, it's taxing.

The hardest thing (for me) is realizing I've committed my prestige to a cause that just isn't worth it, having to follow through on some ultimatum I really oughtn't have issued, etc.

Can you imagine being the President? Having to be a step ahead (and preferably, a hundred steps ahead) of any potential situation so that it doesn't become a situation?

Having to relentless discipline your own emotions and (well-deserved) frustrations in order to prevent WWIII?

Of course, presidents do have the benefit of a very large and well-trained staff to help save them from themselves.

If only parents had anything approaching those kinds of resources...

14 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Jun 14, 2011 1:33 pm

[12] Agreed. And it is deeply disturbing that she was unable to summon the compassion her child needed when he needed it. I find that my kids are very resilient when I lose my temper, so long as I apologize and shower them with love and affection after any outburst.

Children do respond to discipline and structure but also to tenderness and effusive love. At least, mine do.

15 Normando   ~  Jun 14, 2011 3:19 pm

It's key that kids understand that they have some power, that they can control things, and that responsibility goes along with that power. If you aren't giving your kids power, then you're not doing your job. Of course how much and under what circumstances ....

The woman on the train stripped her son of all power, shamed him for daring to try to exert any power, snubbed him when he tried to pull back, and then ridiculed him when he, quite naturally, cried. What the fuck kind of lesson did she teach him there? Poor kid - I hope she is not always like that, or that he's got others to lean on.

16 SteveF   ~  Jun 14, 2011 6:04 pm

The basic problem is you cannot reason with a child of a certain age. So there is little way to get them to do what you want except by threats.

In this case, it's pretty dangerous for a four year old to not be sitting down while on a train. Typically with parents the degree of their unreasonableness is proportionate to their amount of fear. A four year old child standing up on a train is going to trigger a decent amount of fear in any parent.

As for arguing over sweaters/shorts and cold weather, I think that's a case of letting them freeze. Being cold doesn't make a person all that more susceptible to getting ill. If they want to freeze, let them freeze. Chances are you'll be having more important arguments about clothing anyway -- especially if you're lucky (or unlucky) enough to have girls.

17 Mr OK Jazz Tokyo   ~  Jun 15, 2011 12:18 am

[0] Jesus, that story made me shiver..Jazz Jr is 3 1/2 and like all kids that age prone to some serious tantrums at time. I can never imagine acting like that mother on the train though. Parents who beat their kids (not talking about spanking, I mean "beatings")..well, they will burn in hell for that.

[14] Right on, weeping. After any tantrum or me shouting "don't do that" for the 100th time, there's always lots of hugs and "i love you".

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver