There's a commercial that really gets my goat. Two young children are washing a car to a whimsical soundtrack, only they're not just shampooing the exterior. They've opened the sunroof and are sudsing up the inside, taking a soapy toothbrush to the stereo and making a huge mess.
Everyone watching cringes when the father arrives on the scene. He is momentarily surprised but then, adopting a "golly gee whiz" attitude he smiles and joins them, picking up a sponge and inflicting damage that will leave the car smelling permanently of mildew for the next 17 years. The voiceover then explains that "love" is what makes this car one-of-a-kind.
While I know the advertiser's intention is to sell cars, not introduce a new approach to parenting, this ad bugs me. I've heard many parents remark that their response would have been slightly different from that of the dad on screen and to that I say, good, because that's a lousy example of love.
I've been working with middle- and high-school aged kiddos for about a decade, and one of the things I love most about my job is that I meet parents who are embarking on one of the most difficult stages of raising children. For every reward that comes with an older child -- in-house baby-sitting and another chauffeur -- there are about a million moments when parents have to say "no" or make a correction and then endure slammed doors, sighs, eye-rolls and the occasional shriek of, "You're ruining my life!"
Watching parents and their children through these moments is such a privilege that constantly challenges me to re-examine how I understand love. From what I observe, parenting is full of those car wash moments -- of discovering your kids doing things they should not be doing. The broken curfew. The busted keg party. The shoplifted items. The interventions. I know most parents would love to be able to respond with the caprice of the car wash dad and just look the other way or even join in the fun.
Yet it's love that pushes a parent to discipline, to correct and even seek help when they know they don't know what to do. It's love that takes away the car keys, cuts off the cellphone, grounds kids from Facebook and (when the doors have been slammed and the shrieking subsides) explains the right way to do something. If I had written that car commercial, Dad would have arrived on the scene and been a parent who lovingly stopped his sons and explained that leather and water don't mix so let's get out the paper towels -- not the buddy that joins the mess.
Sunday is Father's Day and as I was picking out a card to send my Dad I lamented that they were mostly about gassiness and drinking beer. There were no cards that thanked him for enforcing family dinners when my sisters and I would have rather eaten in front of AOL Instant Messenger. No cards that thanked him for patiently explaining algebra homework late into the night while I rolled my eyes and told him I wouldn't need to know this stuff when I was on tour singing and playing guitar with Sarah McLaughlan. No cards that thanked him for enforcing curfews and, upon sizing up a group of unsavory characters, saying "You're not going out with them tonight." Yet without those moments of love -- and many more that I did not appreciate at the time -- I don't know who I'd be today.
So if that commercial leaves you feeling unsettled because it's not what you'd have done, take heart. Love isn't always about being a buddy. It's often about setting boundaries. Especially when it comes to water and leather.
Follow columnist Alison Griswold at twitter.com/alisongriz. Read her blog at www.teamcatholic.blogspot.com.