Guest Blog Post: Practical Parenting by Tom Shillue, author, Mean Dads for a Better America (Book Excerpt)


When I was very young, my mother used to tie me to a tree in the backyard. That way, I could play outside and she didn’t have to worry about where I’d wander off to. She could get her housework done and I could experience the great outdoors—a win-win, as it were. Today, of course, if you search the Internet for the phrase “child tied to tree,” you’ll see all sorts of news stories that end with some version of the phrase “mother arrested for child abuse.” But that was not my story—the way my mother tells it, I loved that rope and harness. The rope allowed me to run around in a fifteen-foot circumference like a dog. I usually stayed taut at the end of the line, but sometimes I would run around and around, eventually coiling myself tightly against the trunk of the tree. I’m lucky there were no large birds of prey in Massachusetts; with the rope strung tightly around my plump flesh I probably looked delicious. After some time, a kind passerby would happen upon me stuck to the tree and help me unwind.

Basically, if all my older siblings were off at school, I was on my own. Babysitters were only for emergencies, and “Nanny” was what we called my grandmother, who came just once a week so my mother could go grocery shopping (which was an all-day affair because my mom was a founding member of what I call the “militant couponing community”).

One day, when I was three, my mother decided to let me off the leash. Her only instruction: “Do not go in the street.” For a while, I stayed in the half-moon-shaped trench I had worn out in front of the tree when tied on my tether, where I felt most at home. Then at some point I got courageous and broke out on my own, completely forgetting my mother’s orders.

My mother emerged from the house when she heard a car horn honking, and saw me sitting in the middle of the street, a big Chrysler stopped in front of me, the driver leaning out the window making a “Shoo!” gesture with his hands. It may seem callous now, but back then the driver’s behavior was entirely unremarkable. It was 1969 after all, and at that time children were mostly seen as pests, not America’s most precious resource. As my mother tells it, I got up from the pavement upon seeing her, walked up to the porch where she was standing arms akimbo in the doorway, and passed by her and into the house without a sound. I returned moments later with my head hanging low and the rope and harness in my outstretched hand.

My mother loves to tell this story, ending with the image: the chastened boy who knew he was fated to be returned to his place at the tree. But as a parent now, I think the more illuminating part of the story comes a bit earlier. In taking me off the leash, my mother was willing to roll the dice and see if I lived to tell the tale. I did live, and in giving me that leeway, she allowed me to learn a valuable lesson: I would never again wander into the street. I ask you, what modern parent would take a risk like that today? Let’s just make an educated guess and round it out at “none.” But for her it was just a practical way to teach a lesson.

When I was a kid, the dads were meaner, the moms were tougher, and the playgrounds were rougher, but somehow we turned out all right. I’m not going to be tethering my kids to any trees, but when I look back at the way I was raised, I can laugh and approach my own parenting with a little less stress.

(Photo credit: Mindy Tucker)

From MEAN DADS FOR A BETTER AMERICA by Tom Shillue. Copyright (c) 2017 by Tom Shillue. Dey Street, an imprint of William Morrow Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

Tom Shillue is the author of MEAN DADS FOR A BETTER AMERICA: The Generous Rewards of An Old-Fashioned Childhood. He has appeared in his own Comedy Central Special and was featured on the hit series Broad City (Comedy Central). He frequents the late-night circuit, including appearances on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon as part of “The Rag Time Gals,” Jimmy’s barbershop quartet, performing with Justin Timberlake, Kevin Spacey, Steve Carell, and Sting.  He was the host of Red Eye with Tom Shillue and has been featured on Conan, Late Night, Last Comic Standing, and Comics Unleashed.  In 2013, Tom released 12 comedy albums as part of his ambitious “12 in 12” project, and in 2014 he brought his solo show “Impossible” to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Visit www.tomshillue.com.

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