Correcting the Situation

It had gotten past the children's bedtime, but my eldest had a cough and wanted some tea, so I grudgingly took the time to make it. I was busy with the younger one, feeling tired and hassled myself, when he came over to tell me that the thermometer had broken when he tried stirring his tea with it. (!) My response was neither warm nor understanding. I told him curtly that, of course, a thermometer would break at such a temperature, and now both it and the tea were ruined and he should throw them both out and come to bed at once. He did as he was told without a word and came straight back.

In thinking it over later, I realized that I'd done him a disservice. A thermometer does, indeed, look like a stirrer, and there's no particular reason why an eight year old should know that it would break in hot tea. (If I were strictly honest, I could imagine making the same mistake myself.) It was a simple accident. But it had been the end of a long day, and I'd run out of slack.

It happens to us as parents all the time (at least it does to me, and I hope I'm not alone). A child does something that's the last straw, and we lose it with them. With nobody there to help us, we don't know what else to do. They feel unjustly blamed and we just feel angry. When the moment has passed, we may feel pangs of guilt, but by then it's water under the bridge, and hard to know how to undo.

I would like to correct these situations as soon as I notice them--to tell the child that it wasn't his fault, that it was an accident, that I was just tired and out of patience. Sometimes I succeed, but often the moment goes by. I'm too angry to think, or too embarrassed at having lost it with him. Or I just forget, and by the time I remember it seems too petty and too long gone to make a big deal out of. Usually I just end up counting on my children's resilience and forgiveness (both of which they have in abundance), and go on doing the best I can.

I felt very lucky to get a chance to do this one in a new way. A few days after the thermometer incident he again had something hot to drink, and was looking for a spoon to stir it with. I was inspired to say, jokingly, "Need a thermometer?" -- and we all laughed. The message was clear: anybody might think of a thermometer as a stirrer; there was nothing here to hide or be ashamed of or feel bad about; it was no big deal, and if anybody had made it sound that way (i.e., me), they now clearly saw it differently.

I was thrilled. What had been a bad experience for both of us--a small one, for sure, but they do accumulate--had been totally turned around. Not only did her know for sure that he was not to blame, but he could laugh about his mistake, and I could laugh about mine (not an easy thing for me to do). Furthermore, I have a hunch that stirring tea with a thermometer will now join a host of other treasured stories in our family's lore, and we will get to laugh about it many times again.