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Highway pullover instills right kind of fear

- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 8, 2007

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.

It was the subtle difference between a polite, "Hey, sis, would you mind if I lean my seat back?" and "Move. I need room."

Apparently, my near-constant harping on improving the quality and tone of communication among my offspring isn't breaking through. Go figure.

Short of installing a tone-o-meter to gauge the snarkiness level of familial discourse, I've simply said things like, "Your tone of voice toward your sister was rude. Please speak more politely."

I had been going on the assumption that modeling the behavior I wanted to see would do the trick. Fat chance. We're talking about children. Modeling only goes so far.

Now that I've explained the background, you surely can appreciate why that moment in the van was so critical and why it became necessary to use the power of the expressway shoulder to make my point.

There's nothing as shocking to a child, no matter her age, as the moment when she realizes Mom is pulling the van over to the side of the road to target the laser beam of her disciplinary might on your behavior. It's the parental equivalent of a stun gun.

So yes, that was me. Yes, I was yelling. If you slowed down to about 60 or 62 miles per hour, you might have heard words such as "if I ever" and "simply not acceptable." (I'm not going to lie. I was on a roll.) Let's just say I once more laid out my expectations for polite communication.

And no, the irony is not lost on me that I resorted to yelling at my daughter to get her to speak more politely to her sister. You couldn't exactly blame me, though, because it was clear that whatever I had said previously about being polite simply wasn't heard. Sometimes a little volume is what's wanted.

I'm not claiming to be some sort of parenting guru, but the other day, I think I actually heard one of my girls say to her sister, "Can I use this chair, or are you sitting here?"

Of course, I still can't get them to pick up the wet towels on the bathroom floor — but the next time we're out for a drive, I'm thinking I'll talk to them about that, too.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 20 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She is the author of "The Perfect World Inside My Minivan One Mom's Journey Through the Streets of Suburbia," a compilation of her columns. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybeth hicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@comcast.net.