The Setting and Scene:
Six families are headed out for a bike ride with the kids. Their kids range from three to twelve-years-old. They arrive at the destination ready to begin their adventure. People start preparing and then a child of eight squeals “OH NO! I forgot my helmet!” The action stops. There is awkward silence and families begin to busy themselves getting ready for the ride and waiting to hear how this will be resolved.
We’ve all been here. We’ve made it clear to our kids that if they forget their lunch, they will have to figure out how to get enough food to tide them over till they get home. If they forget the mouth guard, they will have to sit out the game, in this case, if you forget the helmet, you stay behind while the others enjoy the ride.
But what usually happens is this; the parent, feeling the pressure, begins to lecture their child on his irresponsible behavior that led to his forgetting the helmet. The parent exclaims, “Now someone will have to stay behind and “babysit” you.” The shame the parent feels for inconveniencing the group is now passed to the child. They both feel shame. The child says, loudly enough for everyone to hear, “It’s YOUR fault I don’t have my helmet. You always pack it for me or remind me to bring it.”
Shifting the Perspective
This is a golden ‘aha” moment. If the parent were open and willing to see this as an opportunity and a blessing rather than a catastrophe, he would have recognized his error, apologized to the child and figured out how to move forward in a respectful and dignified way. As it was, he felt embarrassed that his child was “being disrespectful and sassy” and the power struggle escalated.
As a way to resolve the situation quickly and respectfully, I offered to stay back with the child and find something else to do, but the parents decided that they would allow the child to ride WITHOUT the helmet as long as he agreed to….and they proceeded to list off at least a dozen things the child could and could not do on the ride.
Time to Reflect
Later that day, the parent and I had a chance to ride together and he asked me what I would have done in this situation. Being a mother who raised five kids to adulthood, I was in his situation more than once. I explained, “You have to decide what is most important to you. Teaching responsibility and allowing your child to develop it over time or ensuring your child is happy today and doesn’t feel that they have missed out on a once in a lifetime experience.” (I said this last bit as a way to inject a bit of levity in the situation rather than taking a rigid and judgmental stand. We both knew that this bike ride would be one of thousands this child took in his life.)
How many of us as parents and teachers, say that what we want are children who become responsible adults and how many of us ignore the very opportunities that would allow this to happen naturally? What we really want is to raise responsible kids without doing the grueling work it takes to ensure this outcome. What we want are kids who learn responsibility without ever giving them any. This is impossible. Experience is the best and only teacher.
Consider the Message
Several weeks later I was with this group again. The parent of the eight-year-old loudly proclaims to all as he holds up his son’s helmet, “He brought his helmet today. I made sure he was looking at me when I told him to bring the helmet or he really would be sitting on the sidelines this time.”
This loving and kind dad thought this was a success, but for the rest of us, the message was clear. Unfortunately, this delightful child is learning that it is his parents’ responsibility to ensure he has what he needs, so that he can enjoy his life.
As parents, we tend to look at these situation in isolation rather than looking at them as the foundational experiences that inform our children. Each choice we make, points the child in a certain direction. As tough as parenting is, it doesn’t necessarily get easier the older our children get. We have the opportunity to lay the foundation for our kids when they are young, when the stakes are low, when they rebound quickly and when they are most open to learning in a gentle and consistent environment. This ensures we are preparing our children for adulthood in a slow and thoughtful way.
The next time you find yourself in one of these situation, ask yourself, Is the choice I am making in this moment pointing my child in a direction that will ensure he becomes a responsible or cooperative, or empathetic, or open-minded, or flexible, or forgiving adult? If not, hit the pause button and reconsider your choice.