Power Over Others
by Mimi Simmons
The men in my family didn’t express their affection for children directly with words of love or physical embraces. That was not uncommon for the time or the culture. My father and uncles did express their fondness through teasing and playing jokes.
My uncle thought it was hilarious to get me to eat things I would be shocked to have eaten, telling me afterward what I’d just ingested. Sweetbreads. Rocky Mountain Oysters. He even ordered chocolate covered ants, just for the anticipation and delight in seeing how I would react.
I adored my dad and loved being in his quiet, strong presence. I often got to help him with projects around the house and occasionally on job sites in his work as an electrician.
I was gullible and both my father and uncle took advantage of that for their own pleasure, to see what I would believe, or to get me to go along with something they knew I would not like. When they wanted to build an addition on our house, they needed to cut down a large tree in our back yard. I was not happy with the idea. Birds had pecked a hole in the tree, creating a sizable nest inside. Later, squirrels moved in and I loved watching them come and go through the hole. My dad said he’d make me a deal. He’d put the huge extension ladder against the tree. I could climb up and see if there were any squirrel eggs inside the hole. If there weren’t any, we’d know that squirrels weren’t going to live there and have babies, and he would go ahead and cut the tree down. I was old enough to know better but didn’t catch his trick. Of course, when I climbed up and peeked into the cavity, there were no squirrel eggs. When my dad cut the tree down, my job was to pull it with an attached rope so it would not fall on the house. As the tree fell, squirrels went flying. I was so upset; I let go of the rope and stormed off. Fortunately, no animals, humans or houses were injured in the process. Just my pride, innocence, and trust.
I adored my dad and loved being in his quiet, strong presence. I often got to help him with projects around the house and occasionally on job sites in his work as an electrician. I was comfortable with him, at work or play, and enjoyed our summer water fights in the yard.
One game went too far, however. My dad loved to put on a grotesque mask from a previous Halloween and scare me with it. He was 6 feet 4, would hunch over and, with a low, creepy voice, chase me around the house. Each time I would eventually make it to our bathroom, the only room with a locking door, and take refuge inside. But the game was far from over; he would lurk silently outside and try to out-wait me, scaring me again when I slowly opened the door to see if he’d given up.
My husband tells me that, for many children, it’s a natural form of play to try to scare others, by jumping out suddenly from a hiding spot or excitedly telling another child that zombies live in the climber and will eat their brains. In his classroom this was not allowed to continue unless it was clear that all participants were truly comfortable with the proceedings and wanted to continue the game. It took many conversations with some kids to get them to stop frightening unwilling classmates. He’d help a child who had been scared verbalize how they felt, and tell the other child what they wanted: I don’t like that. I want you to stop. He’d ask those who were doing the scaring, to try to see their actions from other children’s perspectives. He helped them find other ways to feel powerful and have fun. He’d encourage them to be positive leaders in the group. With practice, they became more empathetic and better able to self-adjust their behaviors.
When he tells me stories like these, he always adds, It’s easier with six-year-olds than with adults. So what should we do when adults purposely lie, scare or terrorize others? There’s a difference between a relative who teases and someone who terrorizes but they are on the same continuum. They each value their own choices and style of fun over the feelings and well-being of others.
The victims of their behavior - children and adults - need to be helped and protected. Learn to speak up and have their voices heard. The message to those who terrorize has to be consistent, firm and clear: This is not okay and it has to stop. They need to be monitored and given reminders, over and over, until the behavior changes. For lasting change, these folks need to feel powerful in healthier ways. Possibly then they might naturally feel empathy.
Mimi Simmons lives in Mount Vernon, WA