'Protective vibe' kicks in when a parent's child is threatened

Family Matters

April 18, 2004|By Susan Reimer

WHEN WOODLAWN HIGH school mom Sharod Bailey got word that the harassment of her teen-aged daughter by classmates was about to escalate to violence, she jumped in her car, sped to the high school and created a scene that made the national news.

She burst in on an "anger management" assembly, challenged the offending girls, and something just short of a riot broke out.

The irony -- anger management assembly erupts into violence -- was just too much for National Public Radio and others to ignore.

But that's not what occurred to me.

I knew exactly what Sharod Bailey was feeling.

The idea that other children are ganging up on her child can send a mother into spasms of fury that only generations of repressive socialization can keep in check.

I wasn't surprised that Sharod Bailey showed up to call out the girls who had been tormenting her daughter.

I am just surprised it doesn't happen more often.

One of the reasons it doesn't, I think, is that a mother knows people will brand her lunatic in a way in which they would not if Dad rode to the rescue. And that's a hard label to shed.

Sharod Bailey said all she did was ask the offending girls, "Baby, what's the problem with you-all and my daughter?"

Eyewitnesses report the language was much rougher and the confrontation much more volatile, and I suspect that is the description we should believe. I don't know any woman who would use such a soothing tone just minutes after hearing reports of an impending knife fight.

If Sharod Bailey is spinning her account, it is no doubt to avoid more trouble with the law. But she probably also knows how bad she looked. Even she said she "went a little insane."

A woman in defense of her children in such a demonstrative way is assumed to be maniacal, while a father is assumed to be, well, paternal.

Why is that?

Our culture seems to support any behavior short of gunplay from fathers in defense of their children, especially their daughters. But a mother with the same instincts is either cartoonish or scary. Either way, her reaction to a threat against her children isn't credible.

In the movie Meet the Parents, Ben Stiller says to his girlfriend when she reveals that her father was an agent for the CIA, "I was scared of your dad when I thought he was a florist."

Robert De Niro is outright sinister as the father, and he goes so far as to administer a lie detector test to Ben Stiller. It is the movie's signature scene and audiences responded with knowing laughter.

In the movie Clueless, Cher's father challenges her date, Christian, and the boy responds: "Hey. The protective vibe. I dig."

Seeing that Christian is unimpressed with him, the father says, "Hey you. Anything happens to my daughter, I got a 45 and a shovel and I doubt anyone would miss you."

When Christian says, "Your dad is pretty scary," Cher responds with lilting affection in her voice, "Isn't he?"

But the best scary dad scene of all time takes place in the movie Bad Boys II, when Martin Lawrence and Will Smith open the door to the 15-year-old boy who has arrived to take Lawrence's daughter to the movies.

Lawrence roughly slams the boy against the door and pats him down for ID, all the while muttering a series of obscene threats. Then Smith arrives at the door, waving a gun under the boy's nose and swilling from a liquor bottle, and the verbal violence -- and the humor -- go up several notches.

As the young couple is about to leave, Lawrence whispers murderously to the boy, "If she ain't home by 10:01, I'm in the car, locked, loaded and hunting your a-- down."

These scenes are considered humorous. Even wildly funny. But when Kathleen Turner goes about protecting her family in her own quiet way in Serial Mom, the tone is not comedic. The tone is surreal madness.

On a religious broadcast, I once heard a father talk about how he handles the first meeting with his daughter's dates. He said he writes a series of innocent questions -- "Do you play sports? What is your favorite subject in school?" -- on a baseball bat.

He then asks the boy to take a little get-acquainted walk around the block and he takes the bat with him, casually spinning it in his palm while reading off the questions.

The moderator, a man of faith, laughed with delight at the way the message was delivered, but the message was unmistakably violent: "Mess with my daughter and I will use this bat for more than a crib sheet."

Can you imagine what people would say about me if I wrote a series of questions for my daughter's boyfriend on the blade of a carving knife? Or if I met him at the door carelessly wielding a golf club when I, like Martin Lawrence, don't play?

Can you imagine what would happen to my reputation if I showed up at school and called out the coven of witches who made my child cry? Or if I put my forearm across the throats of any boys who might gossip about her?

No one would consider me overprotective. They would be too busy saying I was certifiably insane. Even my husband -- whom I should mention does play golf and has an old aluminum bat in the garage -- would not defend my mental health.

This "protective vibe," as Cher's Christian would call it, exists in just about every parent, and it is always in danger of exploding out of us in ways we cannot imagine in our saner moments. It is the emotional equivalent of finding the strength to lift a car off a trapped child.

It is a good thing that most of us have found ways to keep it in civilized check. Sharod Bailey's temper, I think, was at the end of a very short leash that day. The truth is, the world does not need parents patrolling schoolyards with murderous intent.

But if that protective instinct knows no bounds, it also knows no gender. Mothers are not any more "crazy" about their kids than fathers are.

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