February 18, 2016, India
A few days ago, a friend asked me if William Golding’s novel, The Lord of the Flies, was based on a true life incident. I sensed a story, and my friend didn’t need much pushing to open up about his ongoing struggles to manage his turbulent relations with his teenage daughter.
She’s an only child, and they have been living alone at home for some time now. His wife had relocated to another city as her job required it, and is only available on Skype. My friend, the Dad, is a quiet, soft spoken guy in public, but he admits that he is a lot more volatile at home, especially when emotions are thrown into the mix. There was a bit of tension in the air at the moment. The Dad had confiscated the child’s gadgets as she had repeatedly called him a liar, and she had made dire promises of revenge.
Anyway, the child was busy preparing for upcoming exams. So the Dad had spent his evening taking her for tuitions, getting the laundry done, helping her with her studies, fixing her meal, and reading in whatever time was left. As the child has a fear of darkness, she insists on studying and sleeping in her Dad’s room even though she has her own bedroom.
On this particular night, the child decides she wants to study late. The Dad keeps her company till 11 pm, and then decides to go to bed. Since he can’t sleep with the lights on, he pulls on a cap over his eyes, and tells the child to turn off all the lights, and avoid waking him up when she goes to bed.
He gets into bed and immediately falls asleep, only to be woken up a little while later by his daughter who informs him that she wants to woken up in the next morning at the usual time. The half asleep, hassled Dad snaps at her, and says he will wake her up, and tells her to stop bothering him and turn off the goddamned lights. She starts arguing, saying that he should not expect her to avoid bad language if he uses words like goddamned. The angry Dad yells at her to shut up, and turn off the lights.
A minute later, the Dad realizes the bedroom light is still on but the kid is in the attached bathroom with its light also turned on. The child is standing by the bathroom door, looking down at her sleeping Dad. She has an odd expression on her face as she closely observes his reactions to her words. He again asks her again to turn off the bedroom light. She replies that he can turn it off himself if he wants to. The incensed Dad loses it, jumps out of bed, yells and rushes at the kid, at which she finally stops needling him, and shuts the bathroom door.
Some time later, she comes out and gets into bed. The Dad gets up and turns the bathroom light off. The kid continues mocking her Dad for making such a fool of himself about a little light in the room, and laughs at how completely out of control he had gone. She finally falls asleep but the stressed Dad barely sleeps a couple of hours that night.
The Dad is aware that he’s not the type to go nuts over a light being left on. So there must be deeper emotion to trigger off such a reaction. It was probably his daughter’s lack of empathy that set him off, as it was almost as if she had no feelings for her father. Most kids would have been grateful to their fathers for spending time to help them, and would have gone out of their way to avoid hassling the sleeping father.
I could feel his pain in the metaphor he used, of feeling like a fly whose legs were deliberately and slowly being pulled out one at a time by a kid, who seemed intensely interested in the effect of her actions, while being completely oblivious to the pain of the insect. The really upsetting part was that it was his own child who was behaving so heartlessly.
The Dad added, that on hindsight, he should have expected the kid would hassle him in revenge for confiscating her gadgets. So he should have planned a neutral response in advance. Because it’s up to him as the Dad, to stay calm instead of losing his head and getting drawn into a conflict that neither of them could win. By losing control, all he achieved was setting a bad example that the kid was likely to imitate.
But he was also quite worried about the kid’s behaviour. Not everyone would be as forgiving of such provocation as a father. The quicker she learns this, the better.
A couple of days later, I ran into my friend again. Seems he hadn’t been too successful in sorting out things with his kid. The child flatly denied trying to provoke him. She instead claimed that the Dad was the one doing the provoking, by confiscating her gadgets the previous day. In short, she flipped his own argument and used it against him.
The Dad hit back, saying there was one thing she was doing, that he was not doing. Which was tell her own mother not to come back and live with them, as she would drive her mad. Faced with a non-reversible argument, the child started screaming at her Dad, and he beat a hasty retreat.
That night, the Dad was again tired and lay down to sleep while the daughter was still reading. Something made him suddenly come awake. He could hear the child brushing her teeth in the bathroom, but what he really noticed was that the lights were off in the bedroom. Maybe he was getting through to her after all. He smiled, closed his eyes and slept well that night.
The next day, the daughter came back from school complaining to her Dad about the tiny kid sitting beside her in the school bus. It seems she insists on keeping her schoolbag on the seat. As the seat is designed for two, it becomes a squeeze, and that’s the only free seat on the bus. The little girl refuses to put the bag on the floor like other kids, and every day she pushes the bag more and more into the older kid’s zone. The Dad pointed out the irony of the little girl doing to her exactly what she had been doing to him. His daughter disagreed, but not too strongly.
My friend believes that his daughter will gradually change as she matures and becomes more aware and sensitive to the world around her. He knows he will need a lot of patience, and worries if he has it.
Looks like this tale may have a happy ending, unlike The Lord of the Flies.