In 10 years of fatherhood, I've often observed parent-child relationships in public, in part to gauge how other adults dole out discipline and set boundaries. Some of what I've seen out in the open makes me cringe at the thought of what might be going on behind closed doors.
Never mind the preschooler in the department store who hauled back and slapped his mother twice after she vowed not to buy a coveted toy.
Or the father in church who just sat there while his toddler dashed up and down the aisle, bumping into parishioners and nearly knocking over chairs.
Or the preteen softball player who held up the start of the game because she steadfastly refused to remove her earrings, ignoring pleas from her coach and both parents.
Those episodes scarcely left me as bothered as something I witnessed in the parking lot of a miniature golf course recently.
A young child (she couldn't have been older than 5) became incensed when her mother said it was time to go.
"I hate you! I hate you!" the child roared as they headed to the car.
"Well, we still have to go," the mother replied firmly.
Suddenly, the child dropped to her knees. She bowed her head, closed her eyes and began praying.
"You can pray to die all you want, but we're still leaving," implored her mother. The child didn't budge.
Eventually, the mother resorted to negotiation. "OK," she said, "get up now, and we'll come back tomorrow."
I thought to myself, "Not if her prayer is answered overnight."
Can you imagine what a child who behaves that way must have been exposed to? I shudder to think what will happen when she and the other aforementioned tykes become teens, which leads to a question that I, a 44-year-old father of 10-year-old and 16-month-old girls, have pondered frequently in recent years.
Are we parents doing a better job than those who raised us?
My initial response is yes, in part because today's young people are the product of an adult population that gives more thought to their children's emotional development than any other generation has received. Parents seem more willing to assume that they don't know it all, less likely to simply pass down parenting traits from previous generations.
Yet often it seems as if that's the problem. In many ways, modern-day parenting is much like dieting. People can't get enough of telling you the best way to do it. And many of us are all too willing to listen: We follow psychology-based methods to the letter. We buy books and DVDs. We watch Supernanny and Dr. Phil. And, like dieting, our results may vary.
I keep wondering why so many toddlers and preschoolers exhibit such out-of-control behavior. And why this generation of teens and twentysomethings is responsible for Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Girls Gone Wild.
If they're the product of our parenting, then something's amiss. Something that should make it easier for young people to know that there is joy to be had in following the rules. That discipline doesn't stunt curiosity. That sometimes you will be inconvenienced, discomforted and forced to think beyond yourself.
And if you don't view those moments as an attack on your person, and each authority figure as a killjoy, you might find yourself enjoying moments you might otherwise consider a waste of time.
That's what happened last year when my then-9-year-old daughter Nyaniso was confirmed into the Episcopal church with about 20 other youngsters from our church.
Each child was to take turns kneeling at the altar with at least two standing adult sponsors, who pledged to act as role models, but some kids could muster just one sponsor.
So other adult parishioners stood in, some of whom were virtual strangers to the kids they stood behind. Soon more adults joined, and before long, every child had more than a dozen role models huddled around them.
The kids watched with amazed eyes at how crowded the altar had become, and how we adults delighted in jockeying for the closest position possible, as if we were playing musical chairs.
What began as a stoic, solemn ceremony became laid-back and lively. We sang. We laughed. We prayed. We posed for photos.
And no one seemed in a hurry to leave.