Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Parenting the Responsible Child

When he was only one, I predicted he'd be the kid in the outfield looking at the birds and the dandelions. When he was only one, I predicted he'd be every girl's best friend and no girl's boyfriend, at least until the right one realizes that a best friend makes the best partner. When he was only one, I worried that the real world would shatter his sweetness and cause him pain.

Some of this has come to pass, and some remains in his future. He is a boy that fourth grade girls call "sweet." He is a boy that teachers say could "stand to get in a little more trouble." He is a child that requires little real discipline because he feels his own failures so deeply.

This is hard to watch.

Silhouette - Flotsam of the Mind

When your child accidentally flies his remote-controlled helicopter into the flat-screen TV, you want to make sure he understands the potential expense. He offers to "pay for as much of it as [he] can," while holding back tears because he naturally feels responsible.

When your child loses the second bathing suit of the swim season by leaving it in the locker room, you want him to to learn to take care of his things. He can't fall asleep because he feels so bad about it.

When your child says something mean to a friend, you want him to understand how his actions made another person feel. He volunteers a mean thing he said in anger--that wasn't heard by anyone else--and tears himself up about how this makes him a bad person.

One of my jobs as a parent is to teach my children that their actions have consequences. What if my child already internalizes this lesson without the lectures and the payment plans? Should I still deliver them?

I worried that my sweet bookish boy would someday be excluded or teased. So far, not so much. It likely will happen--if only because it happens to most kids (especially the bookish ones)--but thus far his biggest critic has been himself. He knows when he's done something wrong, and he truly feels lousy about it. Perhaps disproportionately so.

Circumstances that would cause me to lecture another child often require me to comfort this one, but comforting the wrongdoer just seems wrong. I still need to impart life lessons, but I don't want to make my deep feeler feel any worse.

I'm still making this up on the fly. I emphasize separating the action from the person. Doing a "bad thing" doesn't make you a bad person. We all make mistakes. We all do things we shouldn't. We all say mean things. When we do, we have to learn from those mistakes how to take responsibility, how to avoid future mistakes, and how to say we're sorry. And then we need to move on.

If that means I occasionally let my kid off the hook for his mistakes, I think that's okay. He doesn't need the lesson that the discipline is meant to impart.

At least that's what I tell myself.

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