After an incident at the swimming pool snack shack, I found out my kid stole a $50 bill out of his grandma’s cashbox. Then he lied to me about it.
I grounded him for a year. He made a scene… enter typical in-public parenting nightmare.
But what’s stuck with me wasn’t the stealing or the lying or the remorseful crying and apology.
It was what happened later that night as we lay in bed talking about it.
First, he’s six. But sometimes he’s sixty. He’s soulful and intuitive and scarily manipulative. So, you know… an adult in a short body. I try to treat him like an adult, always have. I don’t dumb down words or questions or the way we interact. His older brother is a smarty pants too and I’d like to think it’s because I’ve always treated them as short people (or maybe I’m just a lucky SOB, in which I’ll take it.) Anyway, we were talking about the crime and punishment and his emotions about it, then, as he started to slide off the bed, he paused and looked at me with those huge blue eyes and said, “What would you have done? If you were me, what would you have done?”
It was one of those pivotal parenting moments and I knew it by the slowing of my heartbeat and the prickling of the hairs at my nape. I knew this day would come–when they asked about sex, drugs, smoking… I hadn’t planned on it coming with stealing–or so early in his life.
I’ve always wondered about the best way to handle these life lessons–and it’s been a constant conversation with my friends (the bad ones who did bad stuff in school :) Would they tell their kids that they smoked pot when they asked? What about the smoking? Or the pre-marital sex? Would they take the route (most of) our parents did–the *gasp* “Never. I never drank or smoked or thought about a boy’s penis as anything other than a marital shrine with which I would only use to bear children.” Or would they show their failures, their fallibility, their fuckups and the repercussions?
Without question, every. single. person I’ve polled has said they’d take the infallible route. They’d tell their kids that they stayed the straight and narrow; tempted, sure, but staying the course and making the “right” decision.
Well, I didn’t.
In that moment, looking into a kid’s eyes who’s so much like me, who struggles with empathy, who wants what he wants and has no idea how to wait, who–in that moment–was making a belief about himself, a belief that would shape everything that came after, a belief that he was either a complete fuckup and the only one on the planet who’d ever made a bad choice, damn the consequences…. or a belief that we all falter and “once we know better we do better.”
In that moment, I heard the earnestness of his question… and I heard the plea beneath it, too. I heard him asking if he wasn’t alone. He already knew that stealing was wrong (he’d known that the moment he’d done it). What he needed to know was that I’d been there, that I’d been in that horrible place of choice–and that I’d failed. Just like he had.
So I answered. “You mean about taking the money?”
“Yes. If you were me, what would you have done?” His voice was quiet, earnest.
“Honestly,” I said, looking into his eyes again and seeing the need to belong, the need to know that he wasn’t an outcast. “I would have done the same thing. I would have taken the money. And I’d have gotten in a lot of trouble. And I’d have hurt a lot of people. I have a hard time with that,” I said, talking to the adult in him. “There are a lot of times that I want what I want and I don’t think about who I’ll hurt in the process. It’s hard for me. I’d really like you to learn that at six, because it’s hard to change at 42. Maybe we can help each other.”
“I don’t think it will work,” he said, burying his face in the pillow.
“Because it’s too hard.”
“It is hard,” I said, rubbing his back and trying to coax him out of the pillow, my own tears streaming down my cheeks at this point, my heart breaking for both of us, the outcasts who screwed up, who failed. “But maybe if we work together we can help each other. I’m willing to try, are you?”
He lifted his head and stared at me with watery eyes and nodded. “Yeah. I am.”
Maybe I made the wrong choice. Maybe it will come back to haunt me and I’ll regret it. But maybe, just maybe, showing him my failure was what he needed, maybe now he’ll be able to make a different choice the next time he’s faced with that decision because he knows that someone else has been in that same spot and had to choose between a bad choice and a good one. Or maybe I fucked up (again :)
This parenting thing is hard.
**Just like I don’t dumb things down for the boys, I respect the adult in you, too and didn’t scrub the eff-bombs. Thanks for loving me anyway <3