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…

Ella’s First Day: The Movie

I’ve made the build up to Ella’s first day of school a tad bit dramatic, according to my wife. So it’s only fair that, on the heels of such an accusation, I offer some proof of just how dramatic the day was.

If you’re not a movie fan, then feel free to read the book version. Like most adaptations, the book’s probably better anyway.

I give you, Ella’s First Day: The Movie. (Well, really it’s a trailer, but you get the idea.)

The High School Lunchroom (Or, Social Darwinism At Its Apex)

I went and ate lunch with some high school students today (I was invited by one of the students from my church). I blogged about the entire adventure here, but there was one particular aspect that I felt worthy of exploring in more depth here on my personal blog.

After 17 years of post-high school life, and several trips back into the belly of the beast over those 17 years, today was the first time that I actually felt safe in a high school cafeteria.

Pathetic, I know. But true.

I stood in the midst of the typical chaos that is a high school lunch (which has changed a bit since I was last in school) and felt completely secure, completely at ease, and not the least bit intimidated. It was liberating.

Now, I’m sure you’re nothing like me; you’re probably well-adjusted and socially secure, and have never battled the powerful forces of Social Darwinism on its home turf. But for me, today was quite an achievement, as I believe with all my heart that one of the most socially destructive (and perversely formative) places in the universe is the high school lunchroom.

It begins as soon as the bell rings: who are you going to eat with today? Where will you sit? What will you eat? What will you drink? Will you have dessert? What will you talk about? With whom will you talk? The average high schooler has to have these and other questions answered in the five minutes it takes to get from your classroom to the lunchroom, because once you walk through those double doors, you’d dang well better have a plan in place or else you become the wounded gazelle in a field full of ravenous lions, hyenas and other predators.

I hated the lunchroom in high school so much that I eventually quit eating there. We mercifully had a drama teacher that allowed her students to eat in the theater lobbies, a sanctuary just off the dreaded killing floor strewn with green beans and crushed egos. It was a perfect haven – only people like me would even think of eating there, and no self-respecting jock or popular would even think of stepping inside the doors. Thinking about it now, it was a strange inversion of the actual lunchroom – a place where the unpopular ruled and the popular feared to tread.

So powerful was the lunchroom that it forged the social destinies of many people; all it took was one bad day and your entire life could become an endless joke for the amusement of others. But there were the occasional fairy tale endings where a jock or a popular would actually sit next to one of the great unwashed and discover something interesting or attractive about their unpopular classmate and begin a relationship that crossed lines more stringently drawn than those of race or creed. Indeed, the lunchroom was the place where only the fittest survived, though most came away wounded.

So, when I stood in that lunchroom today, liberated as an adult from the need to please others, the need to be perceived as cool or interesting, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. I looked at the kids surrounding me and wondered how many of them felt the way I did as a student: hating the fact that no one seemed to notice me, but scared to death that I would do something stupid that would live in infamy. And with thoughts like that rattling around in my mind, I sat down with very interesting group of kids and enjoyed myself. I realized that if I can feel that way in a high school lunchroom, I can feel that way anywhere in the world.

And that’s a pretty great feeling – but that’s just me. What do you remember from your high school lunch days?