Law & Order: SVU and the Power of Parenting

Stabler was a great detective but a flawed father. I hope to be great at both.

So the past few days, Ella has been complaining that she doesn’t want to go to school anymore. She doesn’t like learning. She would just rather stay at home and veg out with Mommy (as if Rachel just sits on the couch all day…). Basically, the child has been dropping hints like a Pinto drops parts: I don’t like school.

Now, she’s only dropped these hints for Rachel. She hasn’t said a word to me about school, good, bad or indifferent. But Rachel’s had it up to her ears.

“I need you to talk to her,” she said last night. “I’m going to kill her.”

So this morning, when Ella woke up at 6:00am complaining of chest tightness, a sore throat and trouble breathing, but then suddenly got better once I turned on the TV, I decided it was time to have a chat with my girl.

The problem was how.

Here’s where Law & Order: SVU comes in. I’ve watched that show for years. This season is having to win me over because NBC made the boneheaded move of low-balling Christopher Meloni on his contract, and Meloni opted to walk and seek other projects. I can’t say I blame him, but dang – the show just isn’t the same without Meloni as its emotional center. I think the new actor hired to replace Meloni (Danny Pino, seen previously in Cold Case) is a decent enough actor, but he just doesn’t have the weightiness that Meloni brings.

What does that have to do with my daughter? This:

On the show, Meloni’s character, Detective Elliot Stabler, had a daughter named Katherine. During the show’s run, we saw Katherine go from a precocious preteen to troubled teen to raging collegiate drunk to reformed, responsible young woman. And we saw this character’s journey through the eyes of her policeman father, Det. Stabler. Now Stabler had his issues (anger management being one), which made it hard for him to talk to his daughter. In fact, the majority of their onscreen conversations usually ended with Katherine yelling and Stabler getting red in the face and trying not to explode.

Contrast that with Stabler’s ability to work with difficult witnesses in his precinct’s interrogation room: here, Stabler is in control. He knows exactly what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. He knows exactly how to get the answers he needs from a person who may or may not want to talk.

Long story short – SVU showed me that it was entirely possible to be gifted at communicating with everyone else but your kid. And I want to avoid that.

So, I did the unthinkable: I approached my conversation with Ella this morning as if I were a fictional detective trying to get answers out of a child. I kept my cool. I let Ella direct the conversation, while still plying her with guided questions. I never said anything that made it sound like I didn’t believe her. And when Ella’s answers were vague or non-existent, I gently rephrased the question and prompted her to answer again.

We must’ve talked for 20 minutes. She was hesitant at first, but after a while she opened up and said that there was a boy in her class who talks all the time, is constantly in trouble, and sits right next to her. This boy allegedly gets into Ella’s personal space, making it hard for Ella to concentrate. She also alleged that the boy punched her in the neck last week.

After hearing that, I wouldn’t want to go to school either.

I gave her a hug and thanked her for telling me the truth (even though in the back of my mind I knew I would need to do a little fact-checking) and she seemed better. After talking with Rachel, we agreed that I needed to go by the school this morning and speak with the teacher about Ella’s story, just to make sure Ella was on the up and up. So I showered, got dressed, and put on my badge, uh, cell phone, and headed up to the school.

Ella’s teacher wasn’t there, but I spoke with the paraprofessional who works in the classroom. We’ll call her Ms. Doe. Ms. Doe confirmed that the boy seated next to Ella is quite chatty, and has to be removed from group work frequently, and as such does sometimes prohibit Ella from doing her best. She didn’t know anything about the alleged punch to the neck, but did say that, given the classroom’s close quarters, an accidental encounter was probable. I thanked her for her time and texted Rachel.

I’ll sit down with Ella’s teacher face to face next week during our parent-teacher conference, but for now, I feel like I have the information I need to help Ella better enjoy school. I also feel great because I was able to actually talk with my daughter this morning about a real problem, and it went well.

There are times when I wonder if I’m good at this whole fatherhood thing. Nothing terrifies me more than the idea that I’ll lose the close, loving relationship that Ella and I share; I don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize that. But I also know that if I don’t talk to her about things like this, if I don’t show her that I’m willing to listen without getting angry and find solutions without punishing her out of the gate, I’ll lose her anyway.

Walking up the hill to the bus stop this morning, I said as much.

“You can talk to me about anything. You know that right?” I said.

“Yeah, daddy. I know.”

“I won’t get angry with you. I promise. You can tell me anything, and we’ll work together to figure out what’s best.”

“Okay, daddy.” She smiled. “I like talking to you.”

“I like talking to you, too, Ella.”

She got on the bus smiling, and even waved back at me as the bus drove off. It felt good to be her dad at that moment, good to be not only a caring father but a shrewd detective.

Now, I need to head to a costume shop and get me a cool looking badge…