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The first amber leaves of Fall dotted the surrounding trees.  Darkness started to creep earlier into each passing day.  So too did signs of darkness appear in the dwelling of Neanderdad, the shaggy, primordial parent of two.  Little ones were learning the power and perils of their negative emotions and Neanderdad was determined to be the beacon of light to lead his offspring through this tempestuous season.

First came the boy.  His tantrum was unexpected, abrupt and violent.

“Got my lip balm.  In my pocket,” he had proudly proclaimed, prior to the incident. He had patted his pants pocket for emphasis, a broad smile on his face.

The boy had been moving the plastic tube in and out of his pocket continually as they played.  He wanted to assure himself that it hadn’t been lost. Occasionally, he had stopped everything, popped the cap off, screwed out the lip balm and smeared it on his already goopy lips.    Then, the boy took out the lip balm tube once again and tried to open the lid. Unfortunately, the accumulation of ooze on the plastic cap made it extremely slippery.  The boy’s little hand could not gain purchase.   He struggled.  He grunted.  He squeaked with frustration.  Then he gasped in despair.  Neanderdad tried to step forward and help, sensing trouble.  The boy literally turned his back on assistance.

“No!  I got it!”  He growled.

Neanderdad shrugged and stepped back.  The boy wanted to do it himself.  That was a good trait, Neanderdad concluded.  But then the boy exhibited a bad trait.  His inability to open the lip balm tube suddenly blossomed into open rage.  The boy stamped his feet.  He let out a scream. Then he angrily threw the lip balm across the room.

Neanderdad paused for a moment to admire the three-year-old’s impressive arm strength and coordination.  Then there had been a nagging sense that this was not the correct response—that some form of parental intervention was required.  Neanderdad retrieved the lip balm and knelt beside the boy.   In soothing tones, he explained to the boy that what he was feeling was ‘frustration’ and that throwing things while ‘frustrated’—even if it was done with impressive velocity and accuracy—was not appropriate.   When the boy nodded an impatient acknowledgement, Neanderdad wiped the excess balm off the lip balm tube and handed it back to the boy.  Without a pause, the boy popped off the cap and re-greased his lips.

“Got my lip balm,” he said again and gave Neanderdad the most charming of smiles.  The storm clouds of anger were gone as quickly as they had appeared. Neanderdad smiled back, but as he watched the boy stroll away, vague worries flittered through his thick skull.   Was it normal that he could go from sweet to monster to sweet again so quickly?  Where had the child’s temper come from?  However, Neanderdad felt some small measure of satisfaction that he had parented the problem well.

Second came the girl.  Her tantrum was practiced and unrelenting.

“Can you let the dog into my room?” The girl had asked.  But she had come out of her room to ask it and Nap Time rules were still in force.   Neanderdad had found her wandering the halls, a mischievous grin on her face.  She exalted in the thrill of breaking the rules.    Neanderdad ignored her request and pointed her back to her room sternly.

“In.” He suggested.

“But can I let the dog into my room?”  The girl retreated to the threshold of her room, but continued to loiter there, one foot firmly in the hallway.

“In.” Neanderdad requested.

“Can I at least get my doll from the playroom,” She stalled.  Her fingers wrapped around the doorframe so they could touch the outer wall.

“In.” Neanderdad demanded.

“I just wanted the doll and the dog.”  She whined.  And before the specter of Neanderdad’s sternly pointed finger she angrily obeyed.

Then came the rage.   And the waterworks.  And the moaning.  And the pleading.  And the acrimony.  The bedroom-bound girl denounced Neanderdad as a torturer.  She whined and wailed and screeched and screamed.  She kicked and banged and pounded.  Her protestations echoed so loudly through the house that they threatened the peaceful dreams of her now sleeping sibling.   The dog that she had wanted so badly for a companion fled in the face of her tantrum, escaping timidly out the dog door.

Neanderdad the Calm, the Patient, the Composed stood planted outside the girl’s door throughout the whole episode.  When her histrionics went too far, he would peek inside and quietly ask for her to calm down, to stop banging, or to stop screaming.  And finally, against this rock of composure, the girl’s storm broke and she began to quietly look at a book with her plush toy pig.

When Nap Time had passed, she cheerfully bounded from her room, patting Neanderdad playfully on the stomach.  Again, Neanderdad was startled by the shifting tempers of his offspring.  But Neanderdad the Serene had once again passed the test.

Third, unfortunately, came Neanderdad.  His tantrum was humiliating and revelatory.

Now secretly proud of his calm, thoughtful management of his offspring’s moods, Neanderdad decided to treat the children and himself to a bit of afternoon swimming at the local Recreation Center.  Thrilled at the prospect, both children quickly gathered their swimsuits and goggles and met him at the door.   Neanderdad hefted his backpack and gave the signal to depart.  But he failed to notice the dog that circled amongst them and when Neanderdad opened the door, the beast saw his chance.  A black blur blasted past Neanderdad, through the children and was off like a shot.

Neanderdad then felt three emotions in quick succession.  First, there was a shot of fear as he watched the dog almost knock the children down.  Second, there was exasperation as Neanderdad realized that the dog could not be stopped and it would take him time and energy to recapture the beast.    Third, there was a blinding, burning rage as he watched the traitorous hound galumph down the stairs.

Then Neanderdad the Calm, the Patient, the Composed left the building.  In his place came Neanderdad the Enraged, the Incensed, the Irate.  That Neanderdad threw the backpack with all his might at the fleeing dog.  He missed, which only served to make him even angrier.  And as his shocked offspring stood staring at the top of the front steps, Neanderdad tore after the dog, yelling as he went.

Even before he had reached the bottom of the steps, Neanderdad’s rage had begun to give way to shame and embarrassment.  By the time he had corralled the dog in the neighbor’s yard, Neanderdad’s sense of failure had been fully realized.  And when he reached the top of those steps again, dragging the infernal dog by his collar, Neanderdad could barely meet the gaze of his flabbergasted children.  He simply pushed the dog inside, picked up his backpack and led them down to the car.

And as Neanderdad and his offspring drove to the Recreation Center, Neanderdad tried to absorb his own lesson about the power and perils of negative emotions.   Neanderdad’s destiny, it seemed, was not to be a beacon of light for his offspring.  Rather, his was to be a cautionary tale.   So as the first amber leaves of Fall dotted the surrounding trees, as darkness started to creep into the glorious afternoon sunshine, and as the children chatting excitedly about how far the backpack had flown, Neanderdad the Hypocrite said not a word.

First Published in the Burlingame Mother’s Club Newsletter