Do as I Say, Not as I Do: Lessons My Father Didn’t Know He Taught Me
This parent philosophy and authoritarian pose by my father planted early seeds of our discord as father and son.
My childhood home, the place of my single-digit life, sat just outside Enoree, South Carolina, a very small crossroads of a town near where I typically call my hometown, Woodruff.
This house my parents rented throughout the early to mid-1960s had a large barn beside it, apparently intended as a garage, and a redneck beer joint across the street, Lefty’s.
This is the house where our family dog was killed, hit by a car in that street and buried by my father before he walked over to Lefty’s for a beer or two.
While our memories are not as credible as we would like, I have some of the most vivid recollections of my life from those years and that house. Part of that vividness is likely from my father’s habit of telling and retelling stories of his life and ours, but a significant contribution to my being able to see those years quite vividly in my mind is that my parents took 8 mm movies throughout that time as a young family.
There was the snowstorm video with the giant, frozen snowball that we watched over and over.
But I also recall playing outside in the leaves with my parents, and our own family version of ollie ollie oxen free that positioned one child and one parent together on each side of the house as we threw balls over for the other pair to catch. The greatest chaos, however, were the tea and water fights that often began at the table during lunch or dinner and then carried over into the yard before circling back into the house.
My father was apt, even after they built their own house and moved to the other side of Woodruff in 1971, to sneak around the house and spray my mother with the garden house through the window screen as she sat on the toilet.
I think my parents were well aware of these lessons about play and joy as a family. I often think my parents had children to insure they could continue playing their entire lives; we were card and board game players throughout my life at home as well.
And my parents raised three grandsons with the same sort of playful gusto well into their old age.
I have another vivid memory, a standard refrain of my father’s as well as what very well may be a reconstructed memory of him lecturing from the living room of the Enoree house while smoking and drinking bourbon: “Do as I say, not as I do.”
This parent philosophy and authoritarian pose by my father planted early seeds of our discord as father and son. As a child, I couldn’t explain why but I hated this mandate, often while sitting in my room alone as punishment for talking back.
I would maintain a strict policy of my own, my philosophy of being a son, well into adolescence — talk back because that is the one thing he will not tolerate and ultimately something he could not stop.
As a teen, I also recall (again maybe more reconstruction) my father holding me hard against the floor, all his weight on me and his massive arms and hands rendering me immobile, and saying, “Don’t say another word.”
To which I would say, “Word.”
My mother was crying nearby because these events had to look pretty violent, although they were more clashes of will since my father never went much further than restraining me.
While my father and his mantra were intended to teach me about the proper place of authority and doing what you are told, my father taught me quite different and unintended lessons.
I learned to appreciate the sacrifices my father and mother made for me, the very limited but deep ways that they were able to love. And I have to hold onto that as I came to understand my father’s flaws, including the hypocrisy of his mantra.
As an adult, a high school teacher, I experienced the same anger I felt toward my father when I watched the principal treat teachers as my father treated me. The principal had his own private restroom in his office, but relentless policed the faculty for not doing hall and door duty during every class exchange — disregarding the basic human needs he took for granted in his position of authority.
And this morning, my father’s “Do as I say, not as I do” rushed back over me as I watched a video of several white families being told to leave a park closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Police officers were gently informing these families the park was closed — tape clearly marking off that fact — and that they were simply doing their jobs. But one white woman was relentless, asking for officers’ names and badge numbers and explaining to the that the park is public, paid for by tax payers.
You see, the big lesson my father taught me was what white privilege looks like, his version a healthy dose of male privilege also.
And my father taught me almost everything I need to know to understand this:
White male privilege is not a message of law and order, or of the rightful place of authority.
White male privilege is about demanding other people comply with “my” authority, uncritically.
White male privilege is a concession that the law and rules are for those “other” people.
While not my father’s intent, his lesson here has made me a better person, or at least given me the opportunity to be a better person in my roles of authority. My anger at his hypocrisy returns to me often and pushes me to have higher standards for myself than for others.
Don’t trust what I say until you see what I do.