March 1, 2013
By Ekta R. Garg
They say confession is good for the soul, and I think no one demonstrates this maxim better than children.
A couple of weeks ago on a Friday night we sat around the dinner table and played a game of silly secrets. We have a female majority in the house, and the girls like to tease their father and grandfather about this fact. Six and Four and I stage-whispered funny things to one another—“Boys are gross”; “Girls are the best”; “Boys are silly”—and the resident boys made the appropriate noises of protest. The girls and I exaggerated on these secrets, and Six in particular went from chair to chair to whisper the wisdom that she’s gathered about the opposite sex in her more-than-half-a-decade of life.
But things changed on a dime when she whispered something unexpected in my ear.
“Mama, if I tell you something, you promise not to get mad at me?”
“Okay,” I said, sensing a subtle shift in her eyes from the silly to the serious. “I won’t get mad. What is it?’
Oddly enough, as she began to talk she stopped whispering, and her tone of voice slowly got louder until it resolved into her normal speaking voice. She told me about an incident earlier in the day when she and another little girl from her class, A., had teased a third friend, S. for no reason at all. Apparently S. had a Hello Kitty toy and somehow A. got a hold of it and hid it. Six didn’t participate in the “theft” of S.’s toy, but she didn’t stop it either. She also proceeded to make fun of S. about not finding it when S. started looking.
All of a sudden I realized that Six’s expression had become fully serious. Because the story didn’t end on the playground at recess time. The girls’ teacher found out what had transpired.
Six continued with the story and told me that her teacher had made her stand out in the hallway for a few minutes and had also told her, “You’re better than this.” According to Six, the teacher also encouraged her not to play with A. anymore. I don’t know if that last part is completely true; it’s possible the teacher may have said something to the effect of not playing with A. if A. planned something mean like this. But Six interpreted it as a ban on playing with A. completely.
The irony of the situation comes in the fact that back in the fall started Six and S. declared themselves as “BFFs” and have enjoyed a steady friendship throughout the school year. Conversely, A. didn’t treat Six well when school got into session, and Six and I talked about how to avoid people who didn’t want to play nicely. If A. bossed her around and spoke rudely to her, I told Six, then Six just needed to walk away and play with friends who enjoyed her company and treated her well. I encouraged Six not to act rudely toward A. and also not to treat others that way, but I also did what I could to empower her by letting her know she had a choice when it came to her friends.
So the situation with A. and Six surprised me, and we talked about it that night in the middle of our silly secrets game. We talked about how S. must have felt when she saw someone who called herself a “BFF” treat her in a mean way, and we talked about how Six would have felt if she had been in S.’s position. The teacher had intervened and used the situation as a teaching tool, but I made sure to let Six know that she had to go back to school the following week and apologize to S.
She accepted my edict gracefully, and from her face I could tell that she’d already realized on her own that she’d made a mistake. From an early age Six has always tried to be sensitive to the feelings of others, and that quality of hers pricked her conscience now as she fully absorbed how she must have made her friend feel. She apologized to us and went back to her sunny self, and the following week when she apologized to her friend she beamed as she told us about it.
That night, however, I also spent a few minutes praising Six for coming to me on her own and letting me know that she’d a mistake. Both Four and Six know the rule: if they’ve done something bad or gotten in trouble and they come and tell me (or the other adults in the house) on their own, I’ll never get angry with them. I may lecture and I almost definitely will mete out a punishment, but I won’t yell and scream and blow the roof off the house.
If, however, they do something and I hear about it from anyone else—a teacher, one of their friends, another adult outside the family—well, that would be the time for them to start praying. Hard.
So far I’ve drilled the rule into their heads enough that both have come to me with confessions of a variety of minor infractions, the kinds of things that make me smile in private later at the solemnity with which they come say to me, “If I tell you something, promise you won’t get mad?”
I’m also hoping that this line of thought keeps open a path for communication when the girls get older. Teenagers are notorious for doing stupid things and trying to hide them later. I hope that by encouraging them to talk to me now, I can instill in them a sense of confidence that at 14 and 16 they can come and talk to me about whatever stupid thing they’ve done and that I’ll be on their side. Always.
In addition to that, however, at some point in the future I want to introduce them to another concept: if they get in trouble, they’ll have to come and tell me about it. So maybe it might be better in the first place not to do the thing they’ll get in trouble for. Studies have shown that a teenager’s brain continues to develop throughout those six tumultuous years but that the portion of the brain that controls rational decision making doesn’t fully develop until later. So in some ways teenagers fight their biology when they stop and think twice—or three times—about whether they should really do the incredibly idiotic thing they’re contemplating.
I’m hoping to fight biology and science and teenage stupidity with mantras that will carry my children throughout their lives. The fact that Six came to me on her own to confess her bad behavior encourages me, and I hope she and her sister both continue to come to me in the future.
Of course, I’m a parent and a human being. When they do come to me, I know I’ll be holding my breath.