Recently, I had the unfortunate occasion to visit the Department of Motor Vehicles in Washington, D.C., to get my driver’s license. I went late on a Friday afternoon, hoping to avoid a long wait. I was almost successful.
There was a line when I walked in – of course, it wasn’t a line to actually get your driver’s license though. It was a line to get a number that would then put you in line for a driver’s license.
After making it through phase one of the process, I took my number, sat down in what looked like an airport terminal, and waited as the automated voice called out number after number. Boredom led to playing with my phone for a while, which eventually led to needing to go to the bathroom. I should have known better.
When I came out of the bathroom, I looked at the electronic sign over one of the desks and saw that my number had been called, so I walked up, laid my application on the desk, and said, “Hi, that’s my number.”
The woman barely looked up and flatly said, “You didn’t come when you were called. You have to get back in line.”
“Ma’am, my number is right up there, and I’m standing in front of you,” I said. “I was just in the bathroom for about a minute.”
“You have to be here when your number is called,” she said.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. “Does that mean I’m next in line?”
“No. You have to go get in line and get another number and wait to be called again,” she said, after which she began chatting with a coworker.
I was flabbergasted, and when I finally made it back through the line again, I told the next clerk what had happened. She blankly stared at me like I had just told her that the woman wouldn’t let me borrow her hairbrush.
“I mean, how do you just do that to another person?” I asked.
“I don’t know the circumstances – maybe she had a good reason – but the rules are the rules,” she replied, at which point I gave up hope that I was communicating with live human beings.
When I left the DMV with my sour-faced photo ID, I was simmering with a toxic combination of anger and discouragement. I mean, what the first clerk did was incredibly rude, but it would have been a little easier to bear if she hadn’t been so callous about it. No explanation, no sympathy, no regard for me as another person – it was almost like she took pleasure in shrugging me off.
As I walked away, I thought, That woman has had a lot of practice at being a horrible civil servant. Lord knows how many years, how many annoying customers it took before she turned into the awful DMV employee she is today.
Provoking Good Things
After I thought about it, I realized that I could easily become the same kind of person to my children. Because unfortunately for them, a great deal of my job as a dad involves enforcing rules and declining to give them things that they want.
“Daddy, I want to sit in the front seat of the car.”
“Daddy, I want to eat ice cream for dinner.”
“Daddy, I want to sleep in you and Mommy’s bed.”
Before I know it, I’m not only saying no, I’m saying it indifferently, and I’m saying it when it’s not even necessary. My daughter wants the red cup instead of the yellow one; my other daughter wants me to hold her hand while she uses the bathroom; both of them want to change into their leotards – all of these requests I have brusquely denied for no good reason and with no explanation. I’d better be careful.
The Scripture says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4); and “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Col. 3:21). Like I said, part of my job is to tell them no, but if I develop a habit of doing it in such a way that it needlessly provokes anger and discouragement, I’m afraid I’m going to reap what I sow; and one day, when they’re older, I’ll discover that I’ve raised daughters who needlessly and reflexively resist me as well.
I don’t want that. I want to teach my children that while they do not always get what they want, they will be treated with basic dignity when I tell them no – especially if hearing no involves discipline. And hopefully, if I do so, they will come to trust the voice of correction, rather than avoiding the discouragement and anger that rises up when their dad does his best impersonation of the mean lady at the DMV.
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