How to Win a Civil War: Advice for the President of the United States of America


Crying baby

When my son turned three it was like a wild west rodeo buzzer went off. One minute I was staining the front deck and my child was kind and lovely and full of blond curls and questions like “what’s daddy’s doing?” and overnight I was the father of the angriest child in the world. It was like his mom and I were parenting Linda Blair. We’d put him in ‘time out’ in his room and metal toys were being smashed into the door and the two of us took turns holding the knob shut. There was blood-curling screaming coming out our windows that must have stopped our neighbors in their tracks.

And no matter what we tried, we couldn’t get him to do what we wanted and just plain needed him to do as a family. We tried everything to make it stop: yelling, cajoling, bargaining, explanation, feigned humor, toy removal, all manners of threat and negotiation and, laughably, reason. Reason! Save yourself the trouble. And just in case you think I’m not Republican enough, we tried spanking, too.

I’m here to tell you nothing worked, and it was never, ever, ever going to.

And then one morning before school, he flat-out refused to get into his car seat. Up to that point he’d been small enough that I’d been able to force him into the car seat, threading him through the belt straps, pretending to hear a noise and tucking an arm around, playing airplane with a buckle, but none of my tricks or distractions worked anymore.

And it suddenly occurs to me wrestling him into the seat that I might hurt my child if I continue to wrangle him forcibly. He is arching his back so violently and fighting back so fiercely that I can imagine an emergency room visit down this path. (If you haven’t been President of a country then you might think this will never happen to you. Ha-ha: joke’s on you.) But now here we are, stuck: late for his school, for my ferry, for my job. My professional and parental responsibilities are collapsing around me.

And suddenly I have the most useful thought of my parenting life. I realize my three-year old may be as strong-willed as I. He may want to stay out of that seat as much as I want him in it. He may know that he has won a lot of these battles, but there’s one thing he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know that I am willing to sit in this car until nightfall. If he wants to have a battle of wills, we’ll have one, and we’ll have it on my terms.

Because I can outlast a three-year old. I can sit here forever, and I mean forever. I will lose my job and my home before I let this get any further off the rails. I will bet my fatherhood on it. (Now you can see where he gets it, and God bless him, defiance and determination will serve him well out there.)

So I switch off the car. I turn around and tell him that when he gets in the seat and straps himself in we will leave for school.

And that was the last thing I said. I didn’t turn around again. I didn’t answer questions. I didn’t clarify. I didn’t repeat the request. We reached the five minute, ten minute, and then fifteen minute marks. Twenty minutes in and I realize I am just getting started; I’m like some contestant on Survivor who knows he can just stand on the telephone pole for hours. I stare out the window at the bush by the side of the car. I notice birds and listen to morning noises from down the street. A garbage truck comes and goes. I hear the men talking to each other over the engine. I do not turn around, not even once. A storm rages in the back seat for a long, long time and then, finally, inevitably, it settles.

At forty-eight minutes I hear the seat belt click. I don’t say “good boy.” I don’t let him know I won and he lost. I don’t turn around. I just start the car and take him to school and then head on to work. A week later we go through the same drill. But this time it takes twenty minutes.

And then it never happens again.