I never questioned the details surrounding the death of my friend Brian’s sister, Michelle, until recently. Two of my kids, Juno and Mateo, were fighting in the back seat of the car, and I yelled at them to stop. “When I was your age,” I said in a calmer voice once I stopped, “my best friend and his sister were arguing in the car, and their mom had an accident.” I took a deep breath, let go of the steering wheel and turned around to face my children. “My friend survived but not his sister. She died. Her name was Michelle and she was only eleven years old.
“Their mother crashed the car because they were fighting?” Juno asked.
“Not deliberately,” I said, “but it’s distracting for the driver if the kids are fighting in the back seat.”
“Oh,” Juno said. “I understand.”
I nodded at him then looked at his younger brother. “Do you understand?”
“Yes, dad,” he muttered.
About a week before I started fifth grade, my parents gathered my brothers and me in our living room. My mother said we were going to talk about something very serious and very sad. She started by telling me that Brian had been in a car accident but was fine. She then came to all of us and said that Michelle was also in the car and had died in the accident. “I spoke to Brian’s mother and she told me what happened,” my mother said. “And your father and I think it’s important that you know what happened.” They were sharing this story with us, she said, not to chat with our friends, but because there were important lessons to be learned from this tragedy. Brian’s mother had given my mother permission to do so, we were told.
They were returning from a friend’s house in New Jersey. Brian and Michelle were arguing in the back seat and their mother watched them through the rear view mirror. She told them to stop fighting and noted that none were wearing seat belts. She told Brian he had to wear a seatbelt because it was illegal for someone his age not to use one. “Michelle, you’re over 10, so you can make your own decisions,” my mom as Brian’s mom said. My mom had studied acting and still did occasional community theater, so she was comfortable re-enacting that scene in Brian’s car. “But stop fighting!” my mom said, channeling Brian’s mom’s frustration. She returned to her own voice to end the story. The car crashed and Michelle flew from the backseat through the windshield.
I felt guilty for using Michelle’s story to shame my children. My wife, Xenia, and I had engaged in many discussions—the two of us late at night and in the more structured setting of couples therapy—to try to get our children to behave better without humiliating them. As our therapist often said, we should want them to be cooperative and not just obedient. There was, our therapist pointed out, a significant difference.
I had deliberately omitted the seatbelt part of the story. The seatbelt is the reason Michelle died, just as it’s the reason Brian and his mother survived. I had always attributed equal causality to siblings’ fights and their differential use of seatbelts, and passed that miscalculation on to my own pair of fighting children in hopes of leading them to a better behaviour. I could hear my mother’s voice from the driver’s seat berating me and my brothers for years after Michelle’s death if we didn’t wear our seat belts or argued, berating us with the same warning: ” Remember how Michelle died.”
His message worked, even though it was meant to shame us. My brothers and I always stopped arguing or fastening our seat belts as soon as my mom said those words, and to this day I think of Michelle every time I’m in the back of a car and I’m looking for a seat belt. My use of Michelle’s story 35 years later as a way to scold my children for their fights also speaks to the effectiveness of my mother’s lesson, as I still viewed Michelle’s death as much as a cautionary tale about the fights. than on seat belts.
Now I was questioning the accuracy of my mother’s version of events. Did my parents shape the story to make sure their children got something important out of the tragedy? Brian’s mother could have been in a car accident even though her children were sleeping in the backseat. Were they even fighting at all? And was the decision to use a seatbelt as dramatic as my mother’s story, with Brian forced to wear one, but poor Michelle having the power to choose for herself and make the wrong choice fatal ?
“The whole story feels like an after-school special,” I told Xenia that night, enlisting her help in trying to decipher what a brainwashing experience that childhood memory was. “What doesn’t make sense to me now is that my mum and Brian’s mum were friends, but they weren’t that close. Yet his mum shares this incredibly painful story days later with someone who is not one of his closest friends?
“I don’t blame my parents if they manipulated Michelle’s story to scare their family into safer behaviors.”
“Your mother told me that story too,” Xenia finally said, “but she never mentioned the children’s fights. She said the reason the mother crashed was because she was trying to follow the father’s car ahead of them. They were driving home in caravans from somewhere, and that’s why your mother doesn’t do caravans anymore. She told me that I shouldn’t either. That’s why she told me the story in the first place, because we were all going somewhere in different cars, and she said we should be driving separately rather than trying to stay on the road together.
“Do you think my mother invented the role of caravanning? ” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Xenia said, “but if she did, it worked. I’ve never done that again, ever since she told me that story.
Is the difference between cooperation and obedience as significant as our couples therapist so often preaches? If my kids stop fighting or if I wear my seatbelt religiously or if my wife refuses to go on the trailer, does it really matter that we are motivated by a spirit of collaboration or persistent fear? For decades, psychologists have said yes and argued that the kind of power-assertion discipline my mom and I used with Michelle’s story isn’t as effective as an inductive parenting approach that aims to help children behave and cooperate without threats or punishment. Children are more likely to develop empathy and critical thinking skills in an inductive discipline model that encourages them to consider how their actions affect others compared to power assertion or love withdrawal models that are based on fear of punishment or parental disapproval.
But what should parents do when the stakes are as high as wearing seatbelts in the car or seeking safety during a school shooting? This month, Joaquin, our four-year-old, had his first lockdown exercise at daycare. His older siblings were already familiar with these exercises, performed regularly at their elementary school, but Joaquin’s daycare did not simulate the closures before Uvalde’s shooting. At dinner that night, Joaquin explained, “We had to practice hiding in our lockers in case something bad happened.” Mateo felt the need to broaden Joaquin’s understanding, so he told his younger brother, “You actually do a lockdown exercise to practice for a bad person with a gun coming into school, trying to hurt you and your friends.” And then Juno added, “There are so many school shootings.”
Prominent advocacy groups such as Everytown and Students Demand Action have recently questioned lockdown and active fire drills, publicly calling for more trauma-informed and less anxiety-inducing tools to make schools safer, even as the National Association of School Psychologists strongly endorses these exercises. to prepare students for emergencies.
When I was in school, my friends and I loved unexpected fire drills – a break from class, a chance to get out and socialize, the occasional appearance of a real fire truck – but I know that locking exercises are an entirely different beast. They are not fun for my children. They are meant to evoke fear and danger. My kids’ dinnertime dialogue about lockdown exercises saddened me, but not because I wondered how the exercises could traumatize them. I know how essential this preparation is. I know they are much more likely to have an active shooter than a fire in their school.
We have had three major car accidents in my family since Michelle’s death, in which the cars were destroyed but all drivers and passengers survived. I don’t blame my parents if they manipulated Michelle’s story to scare their family into safer behaviors. Inductive discipline is a better and more humane parenting strategy than simply scaring our children into following rules, but it’s also a strategy that takes more time and patience on the part of parents and caregivers – time and patience my parents must have felt they didn’t have many years of the time and patience that parents today, in a country plagued by gun violence, know they don’t have. don’t have.
Andrew Bomback is the author of Long Days, Short Years: A Cultural History of Modern Parenthood (MIT Press, August 2022).