My parents never yelled, let alone spanked. We always understood what was expected of us and feared failure rather than punishment. They expressed disappointment far more often than they showed anger. They often asked us to devise our own punishments. And, perhaps above all, they were masters of the object lesson.
Growing up, one of my jobs was to put out the garbage on Monday mornings and bring in the empty garbage can when I returned home. Like many mid-teen males, my attention to chores faded when I entered high school, and I often forgot. On one such Monday, a day when I had both forgotten to put the can out on my way to school and then walked mindlessly past it on my return, my mother gently brought it up. If there was irritation in her voice, I missed it.
“Peter, you forgot to put the garbage out this morning. Please make sure you bring the can in before your father gets home for dinner. It’s blocking the driveway.”
I should have apologized and immediately attended to the garbage can. Instead, without looking up from my homework, I heard myself saying:
“I’m busy. I have lots of homework tonight. Besides, I put out the garbage last week and the week before. What’s the big deal?”
I experienced a small shudder of regret even as the words left my mouth. There was a brief but uncomfortable silence during which my prescient discomfort grew. Then my mother, instead of getting angry, said quietly: “Finish your homework. Just make sure you get the garbage can in before dinner.” I waited, but the expected reprimand or conversation about disappointment in me for shirking my family obligations didn’t happen. Eventually I returned to my homework, ignoring a growing sense of unfinished business.
An hour or so later, my homework done, I heard my mother and sisters setting the table, accompanied perhaps by more giggling than usual. In a bit of a panic, I hurried out to retrieve the empty garbage can. I was just in time, and the can was barely stowed in the garage as my father pulled into the driveway.
“Dinner time. Time to wash hands,” my mother announced. As my two sisters and I washed up, I ignored their secretive glances as any good older brother does. As we raced to the dining room, the incident with the garbage can was forgotten, covered over by hunger and the usual pre-dinner rituals. When I sat down at my place, it took me a moment to figure out what was wrong. There were only four place settings: my mother and father and my two sister. My place was empty. I looked over at my mother for an explanation, but she was busy serving food to my sisters and asking my father about his day. Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to catch her eye.
Finally I asked, “Don’t I get to eat?”
Her matter of fact answer, “I was busy. Besides, I made you dinner last night and the night before. What’s the big deal?”
The trap was perfectly sprung. Even then, I couldn’t help but admire it. I was expected to sit at the table and watch while they ate, but was allowed to make myself a sandwich after they had eaten and the table was cleared. There was no accompanying lecture - and no need. The garbage can and I were good friends from that day forward.