First of all, if you happened to drive past my van the other day while it was parked on the shoulder of the expressway, yes, that was me, and yes, I was yelling at my teenage daughter.
This may sound like a moment of extreme parenting, but we can’t always choose our teachable moments. They come when they come.
This moment began when Katie, sitting in the front passenger seat, decided to recline onto the lap of her sister Betsy, sitting in the seat directly behind. She did this with all the consideration and thoughtfulness you might normally observe when watching one of those animal kingdom documentaries on territorial predators — mean ones.
What happened next took less than 30 seconds, but if you have children who bicker with each other (which is to say, if you have children) you know witnessing this sort of exchange feels like undergoing a lengthy root canal.
I won’t recount their dialogue because why should we all suffer? Suffice to say, it was unpleasant in the same way that it is unpleasant to open a car window and discover you have driven past an angry skunk. It stinks, and it’s everywhere, but all you can do is wait for it to fade.
So far, this probably doesn’t sound like the sort of parenting challenge that requires immediate action — a roadside conference, no less — complete with a grand gesture to put the car in park and a flourish as I hit the button to turn on the emergency flashers. This is because you don’t know the context.
The context was this: The bickering between my daughters is making me certifiably insane. Also, I’ve decided it’s indicative of a larger problem.
For reasons I can’t explain, my children have concluded it isn’t necessary to use their good manners when dealing with one another.
To be clear, their manners generally are exceptional. My husband and I get loads of compliments from people about how polite our children are, which is nice, I must admit. It’s gratifying that all our hard work to get our children to “use the magic words,” to speak courteously to adults and to make polite conversation on elevators has paid off.
But with each other? Not so much.
The familiarity of sibling life prompts instead such genteel requests as “Move over,” and “Give me the butter” and, my personal favorite, “Get out of that chair. I’m sitting there.”
That these uncouth utterances have become standard forms of communication in my house has become a mild parenting obsession for me. I’m becoming the manners police. Speak unkindly to your sister, and you’re going down.
I’ve decided no longer to accept reasons such as hormone surges, lack of sleep or out-of-body experiences to excuse a tone of voice typically employed by practitioners of road rage or actors in mob movies.
That brings me back to the edge of the expressway.
It wasn’t just Katie’s apparent presumption that her comfort was paramount, it was the habit of communicating rudely and impatiently in her pursuit of her own happiness.