At my son’s school today, they’re holding the annual “jog a thon” to raise money for some thing or other, it doesn’t really matter what. Everyone got T-shirts and a water bottle ahead of time, to bring to the event, which, in my son’s mind, represented at once a means of inclusion, and an expectation of personal responsibility to meet and cooperate with that inclusion. In other words, the T-shirt and water bottle were important to him symbolically.
Unfortunately, the trick of keeping track of one’s important symbols is rather more elusive, since generally things seem to appear when they’re needed, and I’m not even sure my son understands the term “by magic,” although definitely he has the unarticulated concept down pat. This has become a struggle for him and me both lately. But he’s eight years old, and I’m horribly competent besides, so it’s to be expected that we’re both a little confused on how to proceed.
The point is he lost the T-shirt and water bottle. Not only that, I wasn’t even aware he had had them to begin with, so there was a “magic” breakdown–because I wasn’t watching to see where he thoughtlessly dropped his important symbols when they were not immediately necessary. In fact, I did not become aware of their symbolic importance in my son’s mind until 8:21 am today, as we’re headed out the door to go to school.
The dejection and mute confusion in my son’s whole demeanor impressed me significantly and in short order. Nonetheless I said, “Look, kid, when something’s important to you, you have to keep track of it all the time, not just when you actually need it.” Since we were on our way to school, there wasn’t time to explain the ins and outs of organization, and that there is more than one way to make it work (i.e., other than relying on an uncertain 8 year old–or 48 year old, for that matter–memory). So, I watched as my son accepted the punishment of not having something he needed when he needed it by his own actions.
That’s how he took it, too, for some reason. As punishment. Where the hell did that come from? Simply the incomplete framework of a child’s mind? I don’t know. What I do know is that I don’t want my son conflating “punishment” with “consequences.” So, I took my dejected, slump-shouldered and chin-down child to school.
And I left him like an island amongst the cheerful conformity of his fellows in the classroom.
Fuck that shit. See what I’m sayin? The problem was bigger than just a mistake, okay, end of story, move on.
So–now that I knew what to look for, since I could see my son’s classmates with their T-shirts and water bottle, I went back home and tore the house apart with terrifying precision (those of you who know me will shudder at the thought; those who do not should be grateful they don’t know).
I found the T-shirt in short order. Standard catch-all: under the train table. No water bottle anywhere. Abandoned the search there, went back to the school, and unabashedly ASKED if there might be a spare water bottle. Poof! That problem solved as well: one water bottle left. Thus armed, I returned to my son’s classroom.
It only took a split second for my son to understand that now he did have his T-shirt and water bottle, of course. But he only spent that split second regarding them. The rest of the timeless moment that came next he spent looking at me.
I will never forget the shining look in my child’s face. The renewal of trust, the fruition of hope–the unspeakable relief. I think even the Monster under the bed would have been impressed. I intend to tell him about it, for sure.
It is one thing to suffer the consequences of one’s actions. It is quite another to be abandoned to them by your fellows. It’s a careful business as a parent to get the point across, of course. And in the wider world, in dealing with others, the same dynamic applies, just at a different level and with differing stakes. But you should always try to avoid allowing another’s spirit to be crushed, if you’re in a position to do something about it.
Why? That, I can’t answer for you, except to say that you can answer it for yourself, if you wish.