published Sunday, October 16th, 2011

Kennedy: You're so very, very grounded

Brothers fight.

History has taught us this. Witness: Cain and Abel. Jacob and Esau. Arnold and Willis.

When it comes to needling one another, my boys, ages 9 and 4, are world-class trash talkers.

This is distressing because I have a pact with my wife that limits my disciplinary options. When the boys fight, I am bound by a husband/wife peace treaty to administer what diplomats call a "measured response." My father was Old School when it came to resolving such sibling disputes. He'd grab his belt and instantly put our disagreements "behind us," so to speak.

I, on the other hand, have to invent new ways to scowl, new, more menacing ways to furrow my brow. I have also found it helps when dressing down the boys to throw in a facial tic and a twitch.

Also, I can't simply ground them; I have to ground them with emphasis. Example: "You are both so very grounded that you could be hit by lightning and you wouldn't even know it!"

"Whaaat?" my 9-year-old might say.

"Bah! Daddy is going to kill us with lightning. Bah!" my 4-year-old might say.

Just the other day, my boys were arguing in the back seat of the Camry. These arguments begin subtly, like the falling leaf in China that alters the air pressure and ultimately causes a hurricane half a world away.

Imagine this scenario:

Son A eats a Skittle. While chewing the morsel, he tauntingly raises his eyebrow to Son B as if to say, "Yes, as you can see, I am eating a delicious Skittle candy, and no, you shall not have one; not one sniff, not one molecule, not even the dust at the bottom of the bag."

Realizing the futility of negotiating, Son B will immediately lean across the back seat and administer what is known in our house as a "Chatta-Noogie." This involves gripping your opponent in a headlock with your left arm while raking the knuckles of your right fist vigorously across his scalp. Insult is added to injury by chanting rhythmically, "Chatta-NOOGIE, Chatta-NOOGIE, Chatta-NOOGIE," as if you are actually playing a banjo.

From that point, IT'S ON!

Fists fly.

Last Sunday, my boys had been fully engaged in such a back-seat war when my wife began an attempt at shaming them, which is like trying to put out a forest fire with an atomizer.

"What happened to my two sweet little boys, who used to love one another and treat one another with kindness and respect," she said.

"I have an idea," said my 9-year-old, his arms crossed defiantly. "Why don't we get rid of one of the sweet little boys." Then he whipped his head around to stare at his little brother.

"Bah!"

OK, I've had enough, I thought. It's time to roll out the big gun -- the roadside speech. Unwilling to take one friend's advice to carry a sawed-off broomstick under the front seat to restore order, I have resorted to the ultimate daddy weapon, the pullover maneuver.

Thus, I found myself last Sunday night in a near-empty Walmart parking lot, in a catcher's squat talking to two little boys sitting on the curb. (It occurs to me now that I probably had five security cameras aimed at the back of my head and a cadre of Walmart loss-prevention associates watching my every move.)

"OK, men, here's the deal," I said. "Your Mommy and I are sick and tired of this behavior, and we simply aren't going to tolerate it any longer. We're going to get back in that car, and if you make another sound ... well, let's just say your punishment will be beyond your imagining."

"Now what words do you need to say to Daddy," I said sternly, turning to my 4-year-old.

"Yes, MA'AM!" he replied smartly.

Instantly, my 9-year-old son cast his eyes downward and smiled, trying with all his strength to suppress a giggle, until finally it leaked out of his nose in a moist snort.

"OK. Don't you smile. Don't you laugh," I demanded ... (Tic. Twitch.)

But the dam had burst. Both boys began to vibrate with muffled laughter.

Oh, heck, just forget it. Get back in the car.

I give up.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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