Impulse Control and The Dog Not Kicked

Impulse Control and The Dog Not Kicked

I began my clockwise loop of Silverlake reservoir in the late afternoon, when the traffic is thin and the sun is low. Hugging the perimeter on the dirt path, I ran past a few leisurely joggers, a teenaged couple holding hands, and a guy smoking a cigarette.

One mile in, I reached the only substantial uphill and found myself on a collision course with a small family – two sporty-looking parents, one red stroller, and a muscular short-haired mutt.

Both parents’ eyes were obscured by sunglasses. Were they looking at me or not? Their body language was clear—bold forward marching despite the steep downhill—they would not be moving aside. I tried not to take it personally. I’ve been the tired parent pushing the stroller and it is easier for the unencumbered runner to make way. I stepped onto the grass.

As I passed, their dog went for me.

The mom’s arm jerked with the leash, the warning bark sounded, the dog shot across the path, its jaws open.

My impulse was to react like any sensible veteran runner: I would kick the dog in the head.

In my reactive youth I kicked a few dogs – pets being walked by bohemian couples and guard dogs that escaped from their lots and expressed unwelcome interest in me. There were plenty of strays moseying along my old running route in Brooklyn and not half of them were friendly. I kicked out of fear and in self-defense.

But it’s been years since I felt the need to protect myself on a run, or control the impulse to. Not since I had children. Now that I’m a mother, I give stern lectures and have one-sided discussions about impulse control every day.

“Just because he grabbed from you, doesn’t mean you can punch him. And you—don’t antagonize your brother,” I say to my four- and six-year-old sons.

The boys have plenty of peaceful, meditative pursuits—they read, they draw, they sing—but above all else they love to throw, kick, and shoot things. Among their peers, they experience aggression as a way of righting wrongs and gaining power.

“For my fifth birthday, I want a skateboard with a shotgun mounted on the front.”

Inspired by their literary heroes in The Swiss Family Robinson, The Great Brain, and Danny Champion of the World, my sons build catapults, slingshots, and booby traps. When they are involved in their projects they don’t want to listen to my boring practical concerns, such as homework, dinner, bath, and bed.

I’m engaged in the struggle to model good behavior, to use the parlance of our neighborhood nursery school, and also set the limits. That means keeping my road rage, ill-considered battles, and rough judgments in check.

One evening last year my older son’s disregard for my instructions so infuriated me that I spiked the telephone on the floor to emphasize my point, a point I no longer remember. The receiver shattered, spraying AA batteries beneath the dining table. My ferocious reaction terrified all of us.

I don’t want to frighten my children, or alienate them, or irrevocably damage their psyches. But I do need them to listen, to follow directions, to grant my reasonable requests.

“You don’t have to take out the gasoline and matches; a strong word will suffice,” my husband said, privately in the kitchen.

The new mother couldn’t control the powerful dog. I gasped and jumped further away from the path. I have learned to accept the fact that none of us gets to move unimpeded through the world. I stumbled, but I kept my feet to myself.

No apologies ensued. Instead both parents hollered, not at their dog but at me, “Can’t you get out of our way?”

I thought about kicking the mother instead. I could see the allure of a skateboard with a mounted weapon, not to mention gasoline and matches. But cruelty is not edifying, no matter how we may remember it from the playground.

I didn’t even yell, “I hate you!” As my sons do, in frustration.

I kept running. I teach my family to use reason and empathy to resolve their differences and grievances. If they slip, they still get a pass. But if I kick a dog, I’m a jerk. The second chances don’t come so easily.

“Remember that time you threw the phone as hard as you could and it broke?” My son brings it up whenever we talk about anger, vulnerability, rivalry, competition, or any of my shortcomings.

“I’m sorry I did that. That was a mistake.” I owe my kids the straight talk I expect from them.

“It’s okay, Mom. I frustrated you because I wasn’t listening.” He’s still got second chances for me.

I don’t want to be a woman who kicks dogs-or even a woman who yells at strangers. It’s best to keep the gasoline and matches on a high shelf, safely out of reach. Right beside the lethal skateboard.

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Samantha Peale is the author of the novel The American Painter Emma Dial (W.W. Norton). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, and Modern Painters. more


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