Welcome to Great Moments in Parenting, a series in which fathers explain a parenting hurdle they faced and the unique way they overcame it. Here, Tim, a west-coast dad and author, explains the moment he learned his son stole something from his kindergarten classroom, and how the way he responded fostered trust between him and his son for decades to come.
When my son was probably five years old, I had joined him for some play and suggested that we move off the bed and back to the machine we were constructing with his set of Legos. He wanted nothing to do with me. Then I suggested we wrestle. He was grumpy, remote, and though I was available he was not available to me or to our play.
I sat with him and tried to talk but he told me to leave. That was an unusual circumstance — that I couldn’t get through to him. I tried again, 15 minutes later, and his mood had not changed. So I talked to his mom — she is skilled in ways that I am not, and she reported that he has been like this since she picked him up from school the day before. We discussed it. We were concerned that something may have happened to him and decided that one of us will try to break through. She headed up the stairs, I followed, and the door shut between us. I headed back down for a cup of coffee and waited.
After a little struggle and buckets of tears, he disclosed to her that he had taken five fuzzy buttons from school the day before that he did not have permission to take. Guilt and shame had him immobilized. He had hidden the buttons in the fist of his hand and when she handed them to me they were wet. Such a small transgression in the scheme of things, had become an insurmountable obstacle for him.
He was so upset. I was like, oh my god. If he was an adult, it would have been catastrophic to deal with the emotions that little guy was feeling. When we realized what it was — just five sweaty little buttons in his hand, it was like, oh, my goodness. I wanted to teach him how to solve this problem. We talked.
He was relieved, but we needed a plan to figure out what to do to make the situation right. We were going to conduct a ninja stealth mission to replace the buttons. After much rehearsal, excitement, drawing of plans, a decision about timing, and the route to take, we were ready to go. The next morning we left early to school, we stealthily walked in together and we secretly replaced the buttons, no one being the wiser.
There was a bit of covert activity on my part. When we were returning the buttons, I let the teacher know what we were up to. She thought it was a great idea, to get our kid out of this dilemma. But what I wanted for my child was, when he’s out in the world, if he needs me to get through a problem, he has me. That was more important than anything.
This proved to be valuable when he was a teenager and he got stuck. You get a phone call at one in the morning and you want to get that phone call. You don’t want them out there at 18 trying to handle some dilemma that they can’t get out of or make sense of. You want them safe. That’s why this was so important to me.
Children don’t seem to have the wiring to handle the complexity of those more dynamic emotions, but what he did have was the access to both of us, his mom and dad, where he faced something and he needed to know how to handle it.
As parents, we often teach our children a lesson, or discipline them. But in my experience, if I went towards that tendency, I was really managing my own feelings as a parent, trying to do the “appropriate” or “right” thing, as compared to really helping him manage his feelings.
And, for me, the important thing was that my son faced it. We had the resources — the consciousness and availability to show up and respect our son for him. You know, when kids shut down, they have a problem. They’re very difficult to reach, rationally. You can’t just say, please tell me what’s going on. They won’t tell you. But we could spend time with him. He knew that if he hit something that was problematic, he could lean on us. I could tell you 20 stories of him as a young adult when an identical problem occurred, and he reached out. Both his mother and I worked on bridging that gap.