When I first began to talk to The Cowboy about my son, I pretty much toed the liberal line. If my kid had behavioral problems, I reasoned, it was because he was “special”—either because he was “gifted” or because he (maybe) had an autism spectrum disorder or social difficulties. This sort of thinking dominated the liberal circles from which I drew my friends, was heartily accepted (and fretted over) by my family, and was prevalent in the public schools that my son had attended.
The Cowboy, however, had other ideas. After meeting my son, and watching us interact, he came to a simple conclusion. “There’s nothing wrong with that boy,” he told me. “You all need to stop making excuses for him, and hold the bar higher.”
I argued this point in circles with The Cowboy for months. My son was special, I assured him. If Alexander didn’t pay attention in class, it was because he couldn’t, I said. It was because as a gifted kid with social deficits he simply had difficulties. If he couldn’t make a bed properly, it was because his fine motor skills were delayed due to his asynchronous development — I’d read that in a book! I’d heard it from school counselors and teachers. It had to be true!
NO MORE EXCUSES
“What a bunch of nonsense,” said The Cowboy. “One of the problems with America today is that we want to make excuses for everybody, and call everything a disorder. The only problem your kid has is a lack of structure and discipline, and the fact that all of you keep making excuses for his bad behavior.”
Furthermore, he said, my son not only saw through all of our excuse-making, he’d come to internalize this expectation of failure and had simultaneously begun to look for the easy route in most things. “If you don’t expect much of him, he’ll never expect much of himself, and he’ll probably come to resent you, too.”
I told my father about The Cowboy’s perceptions, and my dad reacted much as I had. “He just doesn’t understand Alex,” my dad told me. “Alex is special.”
WHAT DOES MAKING A BED HAVE TO DO WITH IT?
Then one weekend several months back, Alexander and I went to stay at The Cowboy’s ranch. Cowboy was unwavering in his insistence that Alexander would not be treated as “special” there, that he would be expected to pick up after himself, and to be respectful, to tuck his shirt in, to set the table, to mind his manners and wash dishes, etc.
Oh. And to make his bed.
Morning came, and Alex did not make his bed. The Cowboy marched him back into the guest room and said, “Please make the bed, Alexander. I’ll wait here until you’re done.” Then he stood there, all six-two of him. Six-four in his boots. My son was aghast. None of us had ever been so firm with him. Alex seemed to weigh his options. Normally, with me for instance, he would have resisted and talked back. A close look at The Cowboy’s stern face dissuaded him from pursuing that route, however. Alexander turned toward the bed, and did what he could, piling the sheets and blankets sloppily on top of the mattress and halfheartedly smoothing them down. The bed was made as badly as a bed ever has been.
“Are you done?” asked The Cowboy, in a calm but firm voice. My son nodded and tried to scoot past him. The Cowboy stood in his way to stop him, pointed to the bed and said, “Come back here, son.” Then The Cowboy took all the covers off of the bed, piled them on the floor, looked my child dead in the eye and said, without anger, “Do it again, but this time I want it to look the way it looked when you got here.”
My son was mortified. “But I just made it!” he cried.
“You just made it badly. That’s not making a bed, Alexander. That’s faking it.”
My man and my son exchanged a long look, then The Cowboy narrowed his eyes a little and said, “I get the sense you go through life faking a lot of things, son. Looking for shortcuts because you can.”
My son’s eyes registered surprise, that someone had noticed. I certainly never had. I realized in that moment how wrongheaded I’d been.
The Cowboy grinned and put his hand on my son’s shoulder. “Well, you can’t do that here. Make it right. You and I both know you can. If I have to, I’ll stand here all day until you do it right.”
My son was as stunned as I was. I’d never been that hard on him, never demanded anything from him really, and I didn’t know how he’d handle it. Alex looked to me to rescue him, but I stood at The Cowboy’s side and said that what he said, went. Alex miserably began the task again, and my heart began to break. He had trouble with motor skills. The school had told me so. This was hard for him, I thought, and I hated to see him struggle.
After four or five tries, Alexander finally got it right. The Cowboy stood by each time, and every time Alexander failed, he took the covers off and insisted the boy do it again. “Don’t try,” said The Cowboy. “Around here, there’s no trying. You succeed.”
My son griped and moaned about it. But he made that darn bed, and well. Later, he complained about how The Cowboy wasn’t “fun” like his dad. I grew worried that they wouldn’t get along, but then I remembered that the role of a parent, or a father-figure, isn’t to be liked by the child, or to be the child’s friend. It’s to help that child grow into a responsible adult.
GREATER EXPECTATIONS, GREATER RESULTS
Seeing my son make a bed well that day opened my eyes. We probably were making excuses for him. Obviously, he was capable. He’d just never felt the need to live up to anything higher than the lousy expectations we had for him.
“That kid will rise as high as you set the bar for him,” The Cowboy told me.
So I began to demand more. It was exhausting. Being a good parent is never the easy route. You must repeat yourself, be consistent, and you must never waver. Fast forward four months, and we just got the first straight-A report card from Alexander we’ve ever gotten. What’s more, his teacher had zero complaints about his behavior. This had never happened, not in his ten years of life.
I have no doubt this change was due in large part to The Cowboy putting his boot down, and stopping me from being one of those parents who make excuses for the “bad” behavior they themselves bring out in their children by being too concerned about their kids “liking” them.
“Now, let’s do something fun with Alexander,” said The Cowboy upon seeing the report card. “We need to reward him for his hard work. We should show him that there is fun in life, but you have to earn it.”