Everything I Needed to Know About Parenting, I Learned From the Gorillas at the Bronx Zoo
July 06, 2017
Many years ago, before kids were even on my life-radar, I visited the Bronx Zoo. I’ve always been enthralled by gorillas. Big, furry superhumans as far as I’m concerned. I never thought that these strange person-like beasts would teach me a lesson that would stick with me through all these years.
We were lucky enough on this visit to see three recently-born gorillas, in all their hairy baby weirdness, released to the “general population” for the first time. They adorably gripped each other in a securely unified sibling trinity, moving cautiously around the enclosure as one, three hairy heads swiveling in every direction, not quite sure what to make of it all, never letting go.
The female adults were milling about, keeping an eye on the little ones, and socializing among themselves.
Then there were the “teens.” Clearly older than the babies, but younger than the adult females, these rabble-rousers ran around, screaming, throwing stuff, and fighting with each other, as the adult females watched with what would have been rolling eyes, if gorillas rolled their eyes.
The father, a full-grown enormous Silverback, sat in the center-rear of the enclosure, in all his massive sedentary majesty, munching on a branch.
I watched the scene for quite a while, fascinated by the actions of the babies, gorilladies and teens, but perhaps more so by the aggressive and sustained inaction of the patriarch. He just sat there, fat and awesome, oblivious to everything around him, munching a piece of Bronx foliage. If he’d ever had any fucks to give, he clearly no longer did.
Then, one of the teens decided to mess with the babies.
He apparently thought it would be fun to grab one apeling and try to separate it from the other two. The baby’s shrieks of terror indicated that it did not share this sentiment. The teen yanked at the baby, whose high-pitched wails got everyone’s attention, and some of the adult females moved in to intervene, but to no avail. As the teen persisted, the other two babies started screaming as well.
This is when the big Silverback stopped munching, and stood up.
With minimal speed, but great determination and gravitas, he rose, put down his snack, and looked at the miscreant teen. This is when the teen let go, and did a “wasn’t me” twirl/dance/run away from the babies and their now miffed and potentially mobile father. The teen pirouetted all the way to the far end of the enclosure, where he commenced wrestling with gorillas his own size. The three babies were holding each other securely once again, no longer screaming.
This is when the big guy sat back down, and calmly resumed his branch munching.
I stared in awe, as I imagine many of the other observing humans did. The teen’s dance was certainly funny, but it was the action, or lack thereof, by the big male that fascinated me most. Yes, he stood up, but I concluded that the only reason this minimal act had any effect whatsoever was that the hairy behemoth probably had done nothing for the previous 40 or 50 hours. While not a universally enviable example of effective fathering, there may be a lesson to be learned here. Sometimes doing less makes what you choose to do more effective. If you are constantly running around attempting to control your child’s behavior, discipline will become a perfunctory routine to both of you, as opposed to what it actually is, education. Recognizing that teachable moment in time, be it a rebellious teen bullying his hairy little brother or a testy seven-year-old not turning off the TV, and taking action to change the behavior of the individual who is not acting as they should.
The gorilla dad certainly changed the inappropriate behavior, and the teen learned to not pick on those smaller than you, because the same might happen to you. The dad also taught others in the enclosure a valuable lesson. The babies learned that if they are in trouble, Daddy will be there to protect them. In his own clumsy, oafish, gorilla dad way, he showed the three babies that he loved them.
I thought of something else while gazing through the twelve-inch thick gorilla-proof Plexiglas, another more controversial factor in family dynamics: the fear factor. Modern psychology and parenting advocate a punishment-free child-rearing environment, especially when it comes to physical punishment. The reasons behind this are good ones: A kid who only behaves himself out of fear of being hit by their parent isn’t learning effective long-term behavioral control, or real-world reasons for appropriate behavior. Your boss isn’t going to smack you on the bottom if you come to work four hours late, etc.
Furthermore, children who are hit learn to fear and not trust their parent. What kid would confide in a parent about bullying, drugs, sex, etc., if that parent strikes out physically when the child has done something to anger them? And finally, what kid would, or should, strive to emulate the behavior of a role model parent, if that “role model” is one who hits kids?
While your kids should not be physically punished by you, should they be afraid of you? Well, maybe. When the big gorilla stood up, that teen stopped manhandling the baby because of one thing: fear. In the teen gorilla’s case, it was certainly not for fear of losing “choice time” or being spoken to sternly. He stopped for fear of getting a gorilla beating. He may never have actually received one in his life, but still, a clear message was received: “Let go of the baby, or get your hairy butt whomped upon.” When that 500 lb monster stood up and no one knew exactly what he was about to do, something arose in every ape in that enclosure, and I dare say in some of those looking on as well. Fear.
I recently yelled at my kid. She’s five. She’s a great kid. I yelled a bit too loudly. I felt bad. I sat her down and calmly apologized. I thought of the gorillas, and remembered that fear is not to be taken lightly. It’s a dangerous parenting game. It can be effective, but must be handled with extreme selectivity and care. There is a fine line between discipline, and scaring the shit out of your kid. I surmised mine might be old enough for a little dad/daughter talk, to make us both feel better and move forward in a positive direction. I said, “Hey, I’m sorry I yelled at you. I’ll try to not do that. I want you to behave, but more importantly, I don’t want you to ever be afraid of me, because that’s no good for either of us, okay? Are you ever afraid of me? It’s okay if you are, but I’ll try to fix that.”
Her little face suddenly changed, from mildly interested five-year-old, to five-going-on-fifteen snide tween.
“Afraid?!” she said with full kindergarten-esque disdain and mockery. “I’m not afraid of you. You’re my Daddy!”
At this point, in a kid’s book, or Lifetime movie, the daughter throws her arms around her father’s neck and says, “I love you, Daddy.” In real life, mine got up and ran to her mother yelling and laughing with evil glee, “Momma! Daddy thinks I’m afraid of him! He’s my daddy! I’m not afraid of him! Haha! MOMMAAAA!!”
I’ve never been so happy to have my kid act like a completely disrespectful little jackhole.
That day at The Bronx Zoo, I learned that sometimes inaction is as important as action, and that a little wisely-placed fear never actually hurt anyone. Fast forward to putting that into direct parenting practice, I learned that if you pay close enough attention, the world lets you know, occasionally in the form of an obnoxious, confident and most definitely not afraid five-year-old girl laughing at your attempt at parenting, that you are doing okay.