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You don't have children, do you?

By Lawrence Henry
web posted June 25, 2001

Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan, writing on his own website, makes a habit of slapping around fellow writers for their alleged excesses and failures. It amounts to a kind of bullying snigger, and, like schoolyard bullying, this literary sniping has the same motive: To promote oneself at another's expense.

In a recent entry (6/20), he evinces horror at National Review contributing editor John Derbyshire's "uncategorizable advice to his timid son…now up on National Review Online. Who else would encourage his offspring to fight back against a bully by bribing him with ice-cream and the words: 'But I want to see the blood. Ice cream for blood.'"

Derbyshire's full passage reads like this: "When all else fails with kids, fall back on bribery. Danny likes ice cream more than anything else. I have now promised him ice cream every day for a week, at the place in the village, the place we go to for a special treat, if, the next time he gets punched, he punches back so hard that he gets sent to the office and the school calls me in. And, for bonus points, if he can bop the aggressor right square on the nose and cause a nosebleed - two weeks' ice cream. But I want to see the blood. Ice cream for blood. I shall probably get my name on some FBI database for writing this."

To Sullivan, one must simply say, "You don't have kids, do you?"

Far from being "uncategorizable," Derbyshire's advice to his son is common, on several counts.

First, about bullying: Never mind today's wussified no-conflict-allowed zero-tolerance culture. Fathers still tell their sons the best way to handle a bully is to punch him in the nose. The difference? Today, fathers like Derbyshire are willing to take the ridiculous consequences of this historically commonsense action: expulsion from school (for the son), Gulag-like "sensitivity training," and lawsuits.

I can recount three conversations just like John Derbyshire's with his son, heard in the past few weeks.

Second, about bribery: It works. When we toilet-trained Bud, we gave him a "big chocolate chip" (a Hershey's kiss) for a BM in the potty, and a "little chocolate chip" (regular Tollhouse morsel) for a successfully aimed pee. He got the process in about three weeks. The bribes expired, as all such bribes do. I recently paid Bud and his pal Jason a dollar each to clean up all the toys in the basement after their afternoon together, during which they had taken out every toy in the house. They did it in five minutes, and were happy about it.

A bribe need be no more than a star on an achievement chart. Children will work for prizes, if parents are confident enough to know what kind of behavior they prize. (A big "if," and a topic for another column.) This is nothing new. Joseph Kennedy promised each of his sons $1,000, an immense sum for the 1940s, if they refrained from smoking till they were 21. All the sons won the money, and, excepting JFK's occasional cigars, none smoked in adulthood.

Finally, humor. Derbyshire's passage has the exasperated, loving ring of parental exaggeration, familiar to anyone who has had to confront, unravel, and simplify the knots of childhood. It really is the final growing up, when you have kids of your own.

"My mother put a curse on me," Bill Cosby used to say. "She'd say, 'I hope when you grow up, you have kids just like you.' And you know what? A mother's curse works."

Let us remember, too, that it was Bill Cosby who described his wife raging, as she put the children to bed, "The beatings will now begin!" And Cosby, too, who talked about coming into his son's room (son having gotten a reverse Mohawk haircut), saying, "Your mother sent me up here to kill you."

The Las Vegas audience who heard these lines howled in laughter and recognition. One suspects that Andrew Sullivan might work himself into a high dudgeon, so lead-footed is his response to humor. (See the Sullivan "Daily Dish" archive for his tin-eared exegisis of a Tom Wolfe-like passage by Joel Garreau, a writer with two genuinely big ideas to his name, in "The Nine Nations of North America" and "Edge City," two more than Sullivan has ever had.) One wonders how he might regard Mark Twain.

As Tom Sawyer said, poking Huck Finn's dead cat: "My, he's stiff, ain't he?"

Lawrence Henry is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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