All kids have their stories to tell and it’s important to listen. But if my job is to teach, then it’s also important to dig further and help them ascertain what really happened and that can be unpleasant for both kid and father. That’s why post-mortems are difficult, because they expose the sometimes gruesome unpleasantness of why something occurred; but the post-mortem can also serve to explain how to avoid having it happen all over again.
It was another of those playground incidents in which a kid loses his cool and in the heat of the moment, makes threats and then finally chucks an inflatable rubber ball into the face of another kid in a pique of anger. Such was the story from one of my own kids, who was the recipient of the ball in the face and on telling the story, becoming rightly angry again. The unfortunate problem was that I didn’t just nod my head and sympathize out of blind loyalty, but began to ask questions about the incident; this was especially the case since the ball thrower had a reputation for becoming upset, but never before with Youngest. After hearing the initial report, I asked him to begin again and as he progressed, I would stop him and ask for more detail. What came through was that Youngest wasn’t the cause of the initial situation and subsequent anger – spilling the gas, so to speak – but he did make a subsequent comment that lit the match, pushing the other kid over the edge. His remark was under his breath, sotto voce, but it was overheard and that was the spark for the rubber ball explosion. The quiet comment wasn’t remotely helpful to the circumstance at hand.
When I understood what happened, I asked what he’d learned from the situation and when there was no response, I commented that he’d figuratively lit a match and tossed it onto spilled gas; this wasn’t an errant ball, but one that he did cause to be chucked at him. The first lesson was that if he was going to make remarks, he had to be ready to stand by them. The second lesson was that if there was situation between others, his best course of action was to keep his mouth shut and not make himself a target instead of others.
His response was one of anger and confusion, questioning why I’d take the other child’s side instead of his. I had to explain that I wasn’t and that the other child was clearly wrong for pegging him with the ball. But there were lessons to be learned from the situation and my job was to help him learn those lessons so that this didn’t happen again, getting hurt for no other reason than opening his mouth when it should have stayed shut. It wasn’t what a child would want to hear from Dad, but there it was in all of it’s painful reality.
Everyone has a tendency to embellish their own story one way or another. We make ourselves the heroes in good circumstances and frequently the victims when things don’t go our way. This is usually accentuated in children but I have seen a few adults who give the kids a run for their money. What’s important for me, as a father, is to slow the process down and help my child figure out exactly what happened. What the progression of events and at what point did things go off the rails? It’s not easy and sometimes impossible since kids are neither the most reliable nor objective storytellers in the known universe. But it has to be attempted and if unsuccessful…well, at least you tried. The only sure thing is that your child will be angry with you for not reflexively taking his side in the situation; but that’s part and parcel of being the parent, because it has to happen.