Peace is what we seek—in the world, sure, but I would settle for a little more peace in the living room first. That’s our latest goal at home. With four squabbling siblings, two exasperated adults and two canine child-distraction units running about, the Clarke household can be a loud and unruly place.
But it’s not really the volume we are attempting to restrain; it’s the negativity. A lot of the noise proceeds directly from angry shouting, verbal violence: sibling versus sibling, parent against child and, yes, sometimes even in direct spouse-to-spouse combat. My wife has instituted a new regime aimed at transforming the Clarkes from loud and horrible to peaceful and lovely. After establishing a schedule of chores and corresponding payments, she has prominently displayed a “Peace” jar in the kitchen. Outbursts of unpleasantness, whether that be hitting or screaming at a sib, talking back to a parent and yes, even yelling in a most undignified manner at a child, will be penalized with a fine: $1 for children; $5 for adults. At the end of the month we’ll do something fun with the money. At the rate we are going, that may mean a trip to Disneyland or a new Ferrari. (Who knew we could afford it?)
This is not the first such effort at household harmony, and it will probably not be the last. I’ve discovered that parenting is something like the job of a Star Trek Enterprise security officer confronting Borg intruders. As the mindlessly malevolent Borg adapt to each defensive action, one has to recalibrate phaser frequencies to remain effective.
Naturally the best way to teach children to be peaceful is to be peaceful oneself. Alas, I have frequently failed in this ambition, surrendering to my anger, even giving it full voice. There is no parental pang more painful than hearing one of your children speak angrily to another and recognizing the cadence, tone and, naturally, the words. Your words. Yes, it’s your own awfulness. It’s what you taught them.
I will not advise you to resist wallowing in self-loathing when such a moment arrives. Go ahead. Luxuriate in it. You’ve earned it. But don’t lose heart; don’t give in to despair. I don’t know any perfect parents, but I know some who have given up. You will fail, sometimes spectacularly, but you have to get up the next morning, recalibrate your phaser and start over. Forget perfection, but find hope in progress and remain obstinately set on your goal: offspring who are slightly less damaged and less damaging than you are. Maybe instead of infant caricatures of my worst moments I will one day get to see the better parts of my nature likewise replicated by my children.
So, like my wife and the peace jar, I run through a number of techniques to keep anger at bay, to be the model of peace I want to be. I have stomped out of rooms and walked around the house; closed myself off in the bedroom for sanity breaks; but most often I reach for the prayer of St. Francis, repeated sometimes with rising urgency, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
As part of our peace offensive, at a recent bedtime I attempt to teach my two oldest boys this little trick. El Segundo hoots derisively after I recite the prayer. “That makes no sense,” he says, beaming diabolically. “Make me a what? A instrument?! What’s ‘instrument’ got to do with it?” He’s rolling on the bed now, cackling at the absurdity of it all.
“Well, it’s a different kind of instrument,” I begin, calmly, before El Primero interrupts.
“No, Aidan,” he says, drawing out his brother’s name in exasperation, “It’s not like a violin. It’s like if I go to a village and wipe it out with bombs and machine guns, I’m like an instrument of destruction.”
See now. There’s progress. He knows what instrument means.
Kevin Clarke is an associate editor of America, where this piece appeared.
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