Parenting Lessons From The Old West – Frontier Justice

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We’ve had some rough spots in American History, there’s no sense denying it. But I’m not going to run down this great country of ours. Bill Murray said it best in Stripes we’re 10 and 1! Independence Day is fast approaching, and my kids need to understand just how lucky they are to be Americans. Sure, we could study roadside historical markers together, visit Civil War battle sites and whatnot, but I’m going one step further. July Fourth is the perfect time to introduce my children to an unofficial 19th century American policy whose time has come again: frontier justice.

From the expression on your face I see that I’m not explaining this well. You’re more confused than a revved up trucker who pulled off at tawdry Exit 45, only to find that Jasmine’s Little Secret is actually a consignment store. Let me be clear on why. It’s not that my home is lawless. The kids weren’t toilet-trained at gunpoint or anything, but we do have rules. Nor are the missus and I are manifestly unfair when we lay down the law. We parents need to revive frontier justice not to settle grave miscarriages as our prairie forefathers did, but petty grievances.

The fact is we get pulled into far too many of our children’s disputes. Does anyone seriously think this nickel-and-dime stuff made its way up the chain of command to General Eisenhower? I cannot imagine interrupting The Rockford Files to tell my old man that my kid brother is hogging the Atari.

Still not reaching you, am I? You look disoriented, like you just saw one of those Coexist bumper stickers in downtown Aleppo. Here’s what I’m talking about: a drive home from soccer practice. Who rides shotgun. How soon one can call shotgun. (Are you serious? Last to occur of keys in driver’s hand, parties outside, and car visible. That’s settled law.) Who uses the iPad first, and for how long. Who chooses the music in the car.

A clarification here, kids. We may occasionally let you choose, but that’s a privilege and not a right, so your only real choice is do I choose to like Dave Brubeck? It continues when we get home. Who cleans up the Stonehenge-looking mess the dog has left in the guest bedroom, the one you all swear you didn’t see. Want to know how mom and I know you’re lying? After code brown, dogs generally don’t close the door behind themselves. And my personal favorite, which show gets watched on television.

This one frosts me because there are many televisions in our house, each with a high definition beyond my wildest imagination when I was their age. They don’t even know the thrill of Saturday morning cartoons, which on-demand can simulate on any Wednesday afternoon. Running low on chocolate milk? Just press pause – SpongeBob and Patrick await your return. Pretty heady stuff to someone like me, who still needs to be reminded that Australian New Year’s Eve fireworks are not “in the future.”

The result is a seismic shift in bargaining power away from parents to kids. Kids who cannot imagine having to behave all day Sunday, from breakfast right up to bathed and brushed, all in exchange for the right to watch a measly hour of The Wonderful World of Disney. Talk about a Brock-for-Broglio bad trade. There are no winners and losers now, just winners and bigger winners. So why is it the less they have to fight about, the more we’re expected to referee?

This is where the frontier justice room comes in. The solution is to pull the line of civilization back a little, expand the rugged frontier. I am talking about more than just a mental construct. I am talking about dedicating physical space for this extra-jurisdictional refuge. Ideally it’s in the basement, or wherever is most squarely within the kids’ lair. Location reinforces the idea that in this domain parents have no authority, kids themselves are judge and jury. A windowless storage room is perfect. Perhaps a whiteboard is on one wall, to encourage negotiation and diplomatic resolution. Also present might be pugil sticks and head-gear, for as Carl von Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means. These are all just suggestions, there is no wrong way to outfit the space. In fact, there is only one immutable rule in the frontier justice room: all aggrieved parties enter, and exit only when the conflict is resolved.

Crazy? It’s a lot cheaper than a panic room, and honestly, how often will you use that?