Andrea Blaugrund Nevins is writer and director of "The Other F Word," a documentary in theaters now, that explores how punk's ultimate anti-authoritarians become the ultimate authority, fathers.
Growing up in New York City, in the heyday of CBGBs, I used to cross the street to avoid punk rockers. It wasn't only the metal and follicular spikes that scared me, they exuded something very raw and angry. And I was likely an unappealing stereotype to them: a plaid-uniformed product of an all-girls' school, my Tretorns maybe a bit too clean. Better to keep a safe distance.
Until I gave birth to one. My third child was still a toddler when it became clear he was the punker his older siblings weren't. If they said something that even slightly smacked of pandering to his diminutive size or age, he'd look them right in the eye and tear up the artwork they'd just brought home. He took no prisoners.
The usual consequences for unruly behavior didn't work on him either. He had no vested interest in television or videos, candy or dessert, so bribes and deprivations held no value. If I took away his magnetic tiles, he'd build with sticks and rocks in the yard. Time outs elicited spiteful room reorganizing that resulted in shredded bedding and books, and a sly smile when he opened the door quietly.
He walked out on Mommy and Me where other kids would clap and sing in unison. He couldn't stand mandatory afternoon naps at pre-school, begged me to pick him up, "After snack?"
But, there was one class he liked. It was taught by Liz Memel, who ascribed to the RIE philosophy. She required her students do what they wanted to do (safely, obviously), and that we parents watch without intervening or commenting. If my son pushed a kid aside to get a block, so be it. If another kid grabbed the block away from him, there it was. They would work it out. Not us.
There were no fancy toys in the room, the theory being that the cardboard packing box is frequently a more satisfying plaything than a ball popper. DIY ruled, including during snack, when the kids served themselves juice from a plastic pitcher. Surprise: They were capable. And sometimes they got angry or upset. But we were asked to wait a few minutes and see if they wanted comfort.Perhaps, they could handle those feelings themselves. We were urged to resist the oft-used technique of distracting them from their very real feelings.
Authenticity. DIY. Their own rules. If I hadn't been studying the punk rock sub-culture for my film, "The Other F Word," I probably never would have called it, but Liz was teaching punk values. And my kid was thriving.
So how would I apply this at home when my son got angry and tore up his sister's science project? How could I accept the legitimacy of his feelings, but not the destruction? Jim Lindberg, who we follow most closely in "The Other F Word," was keenly aware as a teenager of the hypocrisy of the world around him, and the anger made him want to throw rocks through windows, but instead, he says,
"[I] learned to play music that sounded like a rock going through a window."
At four and a half, my youngest wasn't quite ready for his own electric guitar. Instead, we wrote a five-page book about what happens to his body when those feelings start to come over him and read it every night. We came up with a list of ways -- counting, breathing, pressing palms together hard -- to lasso the wild feelings before they went on the rampage. In spending this time with him -- and honoring his process -- I got to know the gentle soul that took the world's injustices so personally.
What I learned from my time in the punk world was that underneath the scary spikes is a poet, a perceptive and tender soul who sees and feels deeply, and reacts accordingly. I could see the struggling little boy beneath the off-putting exterior, the tantrum realized in a shock of blue hair and a fully tattooed torso.
When the film's trailer was released, I posted it on Facebook. The first person to respond was Liz Memel, my son's former teacher. She said she was happy to be seeing "this view of 'kids giving life' to their parents. (The kids') humanity coming out!"
Humanity. It really struck me, because it was the exact same word Tony Adolescent, of the old-school punk band, The Adolescents, used after he first saw the film. He said, "Thank you for showing our humanity." I would no longer cross the street to avoid punk rockers, and my youngest son no longer goes into rages. But it's clear he still feels, big and loud.
You know what he asked for his sixth birthday? Drums.