What if your daughter greets you one evening saying she broke your favorite crystal vase by mistake? You want to scold her for her carelessness, tell her how precious the vase was to you, how expensive / rare it was, how things need to be taken care of, how she must learn to handle things carefully – Oh! I said that already, but this is where you go into a loop repeating yourself, till a major scene erupts. An evening gone down the tube. If your daughter is lucky. Else, it’ll be a week gone down the tube! 🙂
Your reaction is natural. (!)
If your son tells you he crashed the car, and he’s not even supposed to be driving (he’s 13, for crying out loud!), you lose it and lose it big time. “Who taught you how to drive? Where did you learn? When? Is this the first time you’ve taken the car out? You could have killed someone – even yourself!”
Your reaction is justified – it springs from your concern for his welfare, from your fear that he may injure himself or another, from your horror of being responsible for your underage child driving, worry about how much it’ll cost to fix the car, your suppressed thoughts of what else he’s getting up to that you are not aware of… and on and on.
I want to suggest another kind of reaction.
My daughter was about 7, and we hadn’t been getting on too well for some time – a rare situation. One of the reasons was that she had begun to display a tendency to violence. If I were teasing her about something, she would hit me – lightly, but she would hit me. I observed it for a couple of weeks thinking it was a phase, but then I noticed it took less and less provocation for her to hit out, and she was hitting harder. From being her last response, it was becoming response no. 2 (after protesting verbally). Not good.
I broached the issue with her, telling her how violence was not the way to resolve any disagreement or conflict. She was very upset that she was doing something ‘wrong’. I explained that it didn’t matter so much that she was doing something wrong; what mattered to me was that she understand why I believed violence was wrong.
Violence is disrespectful of a person’s space and dignity. Instead of resolving conflict, it makes it more complicated, introducing roles that drag both the aggressor and the victim to the lowest denominator of humanness (yes, humanness, not humanity). Most important, if once you give in to violence, you are more likely to be violent (and more violent than before) the next time around – till violence becomes your first response. Or maybe your only response. And that is no way to live.
I know this makes me sound like a prophet of doom, like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but it is the little things that we need to be vigilant against; the things that slip past us, and suddenly loom before us as huge problems only because we didn’t catch them when they first occurred.
It took some talking it through and around and about and in and out, but I thought we’d finally got there. She understood that hitting, pushing and so on were Not On.
I picked her up from school one day to find her very quiet. Sensing something was up, I stayed quiet. During the seemingly interminable drive home, I kept waiting for her to tell me what the matter was, but she kept mum. Finally, I asked her.
“Something happened at school today,” she said. From what I now remember, there was some sort of group project, and this boy had brought a newspaper that they were all to work with. My daughter had apparently asked him for it a few times, because she needed to cut out an article from it. He was having fun, teasing her by pretending to offer her the paper but pulling it out of her reach at the last minute. She kept telling him to give her the paper because time was running out and the group had to submit the project before the bell rang, but it didn’t seem to have any effect on him. My daughter began to get worried that they wouldn’t finish in time.
“And then – and then –” she stopped.
“And then?” I repeated.
“Stop the car,” she said, and I pulled over. “And then –” the tears coursed silently down her cheeks. I undid our seatbelts and held her.
Choking over her tears, she said, “I pushed him.” She was broken-hearted that she had committed an act of violence.
Before you wonder if I’m making a big deal out of a little thing, I must add that she understood that the push she gave the boy was not the ordinary friendly, play kind of push, but one that intended him harm. It didn’t do him any harm, but that is beside the point. She intended harm, and that was bad enough.
I agree with her. If we don’t learn to put the brakes on ourselves – our thoughts behavior words – what will the world be like? Sort of out-of-control like it is right now, don’t you think? But probably worse – much worse.
“I’m so sorry, so very, very sorry that I pushed him. I realized the moment I’d pushed him – but I’d already done it.” My heart was full to breaking – upset that she’d given in to violence, but tremendously proud that she realized what she’d done was wrong. And both overwhelmed and humbled that she had shared this incident with me.
I just held her silently. Sometimes words get in the way.
After a bit, she seemed to collect herself and pulled away from me.
I told her it was sad that she’d given in to the impulse to violence – there was no need to point out how it was easier to be more violent the next time, since she knew it herself.
But I also told her what a rare and special thing it was that she had realized her mistake on her own. I told her how it was a person in a million who would be so scrupulously honest and admit they did something wrong (considering she didn’t really ‘do’ him any harm – he neither fell over nor bumped against anything nor hurt himself in any way – I called the teacher the next day, told her about this and checked back. The lady said the children horsed around all the time and not to bother myself about it.) – especially when there was no way I’d have learned of this unless she’d told me herself.
“You’re a person of sterling character,” I told her, “and that alone will ensure that you’ll win through, you’ll beat this impulse to hit out. You’ve made me more proud today than I can say. Bless you.”
She did beat the impulse, and told me that she thought she was free of it a few weeks after this incident. “I don’t feel the need to hit any longer,” she said.
The impulse hasn’t come back to this day (she’s a teenager now).
When your child tells you he’s done something ‘wrong’, hold your breath. Hold your breath so that you don’t say a word. Don’t move. Spend a moment to acknowledge the precious, fragile gift he has handed you.
He has told you that he shares some of your values about what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ – values you have worked hard to teach him.
He has shown you that he believes in your commitment to his welfare – that you will guide him correctly to live his life well.
He has displayed the utmost trust in you – you might chew him out in the harshest possible manner, but he has still come to you to admit his wrongdoing.
Get down on your knees. Kiss the ground. Thank your lucky stars or your good karma or your ancestors or whoever. Count your blessings. 🙂
You might not realize it, but in the moment that your child admits voluntarily to you that he’s done something ‘wrong’, you’ve reached the essence of your relationship with him. Parenting doesn’t get more meaningful than this.
And it’s up to you not to ruin it.