STEVE OUELLETTE, You Had to Ask
---- — Parenting moral dilemma No. 117:
One of my sons had an issue at school this week. During lunch, a middle-school miscreant was ragging unmercifully on my child's friend.
Yes, it's true, kids can be cruel.
My son had countless options. Hang his head and pretend he heard nothing. Offer words of encouragement to his friend. Find a responsible grown-up. Instantly come up with a clever and cutting retort:
"I know you are, but what am I," or "That's what your mother said," or "Hey, why don't you just shut up, stupid head."
He could have pulled his chiseled, 76-pound frame off his bench and gone all Ralphie-from-Christmas-Story on the bully.
Instead, he opted for a different solution. He calmly walked over … and poured milk on the tormentor's head.
My son was, of course, handcuffed and herded to the school office, where he was chastised as firmly as the law will allow. Mercifully, the victim was not lactose intolerant, and true tragedy was averted.
I know that dairy violence is no laughing matter, and that I, as a parent, should discipline him, but my dilemma is this: How can I do that when it would make me a hypocrite?
When I, myself, was but a sixth-grader, I, too, was involved in a horrific food incident, one that was a watershed moment in my life. It was more than three decades ago, so some of the facts are hazy, but I'm certain that my friend Joey started it. He flipped some innocuous item at me — might have been a pretzel, maybe a raisin.
Dazed and angered, I responded with half a ham sandwich. He fired back a Chips Ahoy cookie. It was on.
In the movies, this turns into a free-for-all where everyone in the cafeteria begins tossing food around the room, but it wasn't like that. Instead, several dozen students were transfixed as Joe and I — two never-in-trouble geeks — re-enacted the battle of Guadalcanal.
We quickly used up all the ammunition at our own table and began to move around the room, scavenging items from innocent bystanders. A dinner roll here, a slice of cake there. Yes, I believe there were milk cartons, too.
At the climactic moment, we both reached the condiment table at the same time. That's where Joe made his fatal mistake — he reached for the oversized salt shaker. I grabbed the ladle in the open-air mustard bin.
As a parent who has since tried to clean mustard stains off my children's clothes, I now sincerely apologize to Joe's mom, whom I always liked.
Finally the grown-ups moved in. We were rushed off to the vice principal's office for punishment, a black, black mark went into our pristine records, and then we were sent into the cafeteria to pick up the biggest chunks of aftermath.
From that point on, teachers looked at me with disdain and contempt. Six years later, that permanent mark kept me from getting into a good college. Yep, that was the reason. It was worse for Joe, who turned to a lonely life of pole dancing and origami.
I have no explanation or excuse for the incident. Now I wonder if there's something in the family genetic code that causes us to dump food on fellow humans when we turn 11. Maybe I should have seen this coming.
What, though, can I tell my son? "You should know better?" I didn't.
"Using people as a compost heap is wrong — unless it's done by me?"
"There are starving people in (insert Third World country here) who would kill to have milk poured on their heads." I could have fed an entire village with the food I wasted that day.
What should the punishment be? He broke rules, he caused havoc, and he wet a fellow student. That shouldn't be condoned … but he was also sticking up for a friend, and his intentions were noble.
I'm having the irresistible urge to pelt him with Beefaroni, tapioca pudding and a ladle full of mustard. That should teach him a lesson, and it would feel so good ...
Email Steve Ouellette at: firstname.lastname@example.org