Thursday, February 11, 2010

So this is what it feels like when your kid disappoints you

My 4-year-old can be a lot of things. He can be stubborn. He can be impatient. He can be manipulative. But up until now, he had never been mean.

Another new experience in the World of Parenting: when your kid does something that is really not nice, it breaks your heart. And makes you question everything you've done so far as a parent.

I picked Ben up from school yesterday and made sure to check in with his teacher on my way out. As per Hubby's and my suggestion, she put him on a progress report. He'd been having some trouble following directions (he has a habit of suggesting alternate plans instead of doing what he is told...example: "Stop playing tackle football, Ben." "I'll do it more slowly/carefully/quietly instead."). Turns out Ben's first bad progress report day wasn't because he was negotiating his options.

"During playground time, Ben and another boy were punching a third boy. The third boy was crying his eyes out."

Long story short? My extremely verbal child explained that his buddy suggested the two of them punch this third little boy. And my kid, who is known for never falling to peer pressure (or adult pressure, for that matter) decided THIS was the area in which he would allow himself to be led. This is a time when I'd love to say that my kid didn't know better. That he wasn't sure what the right thing to do would have been. But when prompted, Ben did know all the right answers:
"What would have been a good choice instead?"
"I should've said NO. I should've said I wasn't going to punch him. I should've helped him. I should've told the teacher."

This is what kills me. He knew better. He just truly chose not to do the right thing.

Now I know what some of you might be thinking: he is four.
I know what some others might still be thinking: he is a boy.
And I know what yet some others might be thinking: he must've learned this somewhere.

Yes, I know he's four. I don't care. He knew better. This is when it starts.
Yes, I know he's a boy. I care even less here. "Boys will be boys" is probably the most disgusting excuse for bowing out of parenting when it gets tough. Yes, boys are different than girls. Believe me, I figured that one out quick. Yes, boys are often louder and more active and rougher. But to excuse mean behavior because there's a penis involved? It's part of the reason little girls grow up to be women who sit around complaining about their husbands' inabilities to be sensitive and caring.
And finally, no, he didn't learn this from us. Or anyone around us, for that matter. And this is where the horrifying realization kicks in: As a parent, you really have to teach, teach, and teach. And then pray. Pray that the lessons stick. Pray that what they see at home is translated into their own behaviors. Pray that they make the right choices.

All I can think is: My little boy did a mean thing. Is my little boy mean?

And then all I can think is: I'm so sad.

Yes, sad. I mean, I'm angry too. I'm pissed off as hell and frustrated and disappointed. But mostly, I am sad.

When I had to sit there and tell him that we weren't doing his classmates' Valentine's cards together because he did a mean thing and Mommy and Daddy didn't want to be around someone who did mean things...that made me, I am sure, sadder than it made him.

"A defining moment."

This is what my most brilliant and wise friend (who once cancelled her now-grown daughter's trip to Disney when she was seven because she stole 35 cents from her father's drawer) called it: A defining moment. "Kids test," she said. "He made the wrong choice. Now it's up to you guys to decide what's going to happen with this. He needs to learn this lesson. He needs to learn that even more important than how cute he is or how many soccer goals he scored on Saturday or whether he can count to 100 is whether or not he is kind."

I have always said that there are two things I absolutely can not tolerate from my children: disrespect and meanness.

So here I am, a teacher for 13 years and a bit of a know-it-all... I thought the kids always behaved a certain way because of the parents. I thought if you put in all you had, if the father and the mother worked together, if you really did the "right thing" as a parent, then your child would, at the very least, turn out to be a well-behaved kid. I thought even the ones who were tougher to discipline could be controlled as long as the parents were consistent and firm and loving. Apparently, there are no guarantees. Apparently, you really do just have to give it your best and then pray.

Tomorrow my four-year-old will go find the boy he punched, look him in the face, and apologize to him. He will promise never to do that again, and he will ask that little boy to be his friend again. We have made sure this will happen because the teacher will follow up on it. Hubby and I have teamed up on the entire situation. We have come up with the consequences which we felt would make the most impact. We have sat him down and spoken with him, honestly, firmly, gently, and made sure he understands why this is important, why this will not be tolerated. But throughout it all, Ben hasn't exactly seemed incredibly remorseful.

And I worry that this is just a sign of what's to come. I worry that I will not be proud of this little boy as he grows up. I worry that no matter how good our parenting is, it will not matter.

And yes, I know...he's four. I know I may be getting ahead of myself. I know I may be making this bigger than it is. I hope so, actually. But to hear that my little boy was mean...well, this is probably my saddest moment as a mom so far.


  1. First of all-you did the right thing. I was so happy to see that you made him think about it rather than tell him what he should have done.

    Second of all-frustrations and peer pressure are far more stressful now than they were even when we went through it. My poor ten yr old is really getting rung through the ringer on peer pressure to dress/act/say a certain way.

    Third-breathe...Keep an eye on his reactions to other common problems. Is he just having problems communicating? It's not your fault and it's not his. It's a learning life lesson and he's awful lucky to have a mom like you.

  2. Ouch. We haven't dealt with physical aggression at school, but two of neighborhood children are very aggressive ... and my son figured that if they were doing it, so would he. He hit a kid and got hit back ... being hit stunned him so much, he came right home and cried. That launched our learning lesson about hitting and violence. It's a tough road, but as long as you're constantly teaching and laying out those consequences, he'll get it.

    I don't believe any child is mean (barring psychopaths of course). They are immature and make poor choices, but they aren't mean.

    Good luck!

  3. Liz, I feel your pain. As silly as it might seem, I cried reading this. We have all these hopes and dreams for our children, right? So, when something happens that goes against our expectations, we mourn.

    Your son did something indescribable. I think it important that you are not excusing his behavior. It may not do anything immediately but it should help in the long run.

    Just remember this--you are an awesome mom.

  4. I was so arrogant when I was a teacher and would think "MY child will never do that." Hahahahahaha. Joke is on me.

    Kids do test. They do things they know they shouldn't. My oldest BIT one of his best friends. Seriously. I'm the mother of a biter.

    We all have those moments and it's how we handle them. I love how you are making him promise that he won't do it again. That's what apologies have to come with around here, too. Not just sorry, but promising never to do it again.

  5. My least favorite moments as a parent? The very rare phone calls from other parents (or teachers) telling me one of my children had done something unthinkable. Then getting off the phone and having my child lie to my face about having done the deed. THEN having to get an admission of guilt out of them, like I'm some kind of prosecuting attorney.

    The most important thing I ever learned (and this was from the wonderful principal at our school) is that children should be allowed a path back and granted a learning curve.

  6. Sounds like you handled a difficult situation really well. Stopping by from SITS :)

  7. Great post Liz, thank you very much for sharing it.

    Teach, teach, teach.....and then pray....pray that the lessons stick.....a very insightful comment.....I so agree and know what you mean.

    For what's it worth, I think you dealt with the whole situation perfectly and I am sure that that in itself will have the necessary impact on your son.

    I have an 8 year old daughter who it seems has been blessed with an abundance of kindness and who shares it with everyone.

    I also have a 4 year boy who is more extrovert and much of a presence than his sister....calm with me but when he's at school he is so excitable and physical that when I drop him off each day, I cross my fingers.

    My daughter has always followed my instructions to the letter, whereas my son already follows his own interpretation of it. Funnily enough, my own brother and I were just the same....and everything worked out fine!

    Thank you for such an honest post - and for some very inspiring writing.

  8. Oh, I can feel your heartbreak just radiating out of this post.

    I will echo the others in telling you that you handled the situation very gracefully.

    I find myself completely overreacting when, in rare moments, I catch my older child being mean to the younger. Not even horribly mean--just little sisterly stuff that is normal, little teasing things. I ORBIT. Completely fling myself at the fan.

    I know this is a result of being bullied both at school and by my own older sister. I honestly can't help it, though. My blood pressure just shoots up and I can't control my reactions. I so wish that I could handle things reasonably and calmly like you did. Brava.

    And I'm anxious to hear what consequences (besides the apology) you meted out. (((hugs)))

  9. Liz! You and "Chris" both need a big hug! Parenting is hard, as you know, but it is much harder than it was when we were kids. There are a lot of influences out there on children - TV, parents, peers, friends, music. The list goes on and we cannot shield our children from the "bad" in the world. We do have to, as you said, teach, teach, teach and pray, pray, pray.

    Keep an eye on your son. Chances are that there was just one small thing going on this week or last that pushed him over the edge to participate. See if you can find out what it is and help him see it. It will help in the long run.

  10. My sister's a teacher as well, and she's had problems with her 5 year-old being mean to one of his classmates. Although the one story of him shoving the other boy into a trash can did make me laugh out loud, I agree she needs to correct this behavior now. The funny thing is he is such a sweet sensitive kids, but he does get easily annoyed and can be very stubborn.

  11. Oh sweet Liz, what a difficult situation. I think of all of the ways in which our boys are similar and can't help but put myself in your shoes a year from now. I just hope I manage to respond in the same thoughtful way you did.

    You make a very powerful point here about the nature of parenting - how much we try to control, and how much is just beyond our grasp. And how these defining moments are inevitable.

  12. Found you through SITS and so glad I did! I have four boys and let me tell you - I've been there! I've completely freaked out thinking one isolated incident of meanness meant my son was going to be a serial killer. It's good that you take it so seriously, though, and that will be what keeps your son from turning to the dark side on a permanent basis. We have been criticized for being too hard on our kids and have been told "they're just being boys". Well, they're not "just" boys, they're OUR boys. We have standards and expect them to live up to them. And it sounds like you do too! Bravo on making him apologize. :o)

  13. I'm so sorry Liz that you're dealing with this. I have also questioned so often how much I can really do as a parent in ensuring that my kids do the RIGHT thing. In the end, we can only do "so much" and then it really is up to them to follow through with it. But how we scold and teach after the wrong thing is done is also a big part of it and you're doing a great job. I think sometimes Hannah tests us because we SO often tell her she's doing the RIGHT thing and how important the RIGHT thing is... they need to test us to figure out what really is the WRONG thing and what will happen if they do it. Ben is learning to take risks and some of them he'll find aren't worth it. This I'm sure is one of them.

    I know you're sad, but it only shows what a wonderful mom you are. And I'll still take Ben for Hannah...

  14. I think being "disappointed" in our children is probably the hardest part of being parents. I've been there and can TOTALLY relate. I can think of a specific incident with my daughter, where she made a choice that I would have NEVER expected her to make. I was SO crushed-I too questioned myself, whether or not my husband and I were teaching her the "right" things. Ultimately I also realized that after trying our best by teaching through our examples and our actions- all we can do is hope that these teachable moments will shape them into citizens that make the right choices-and that they become people of integrity.
    There'll be other disappointments... but it's what we do so that they learn GREAT life lessons at these moments.
    Congrats--you're a phenomenol mom! :)

  15. Being disappointed as a parent is probably one of those "out of our control" things that is the hardest to accept...because we do try our best to be great examples, to teach, reinforce and praise those qualities and actions that we want to take root in our children, and yet, there are going to be times when our children just DON'T. They don't listen to what we told them to do, they go against their better judgement and they have to do it. They need to understand that there are consequences to their action, and one of them is disappointing us. It may not always hinder them from following their impulses, but it may have them gain an understanding that they can still come to you, that you will be upset, but will be there to guide them on to the right path...Hang in there! You are not alone!

  16. Welcome to the world of boys. I have a 7 year old and 4 year old and sadly I have had my 4 year old do something similar. I agree it breaks your heart. I NEVER want my boys to be bullies and yet there is was. I am told he is well liked at preschool, a great kid generally and I shouldn't over react (because you know I did when the teacher told me he was hitting on another kid with his mate).
    If it is any consolation, he got his favourite things taken away from him, a massive 'I'm so disappointed with you lecture' and the whole house was 'down' for the day. BUT I can report he has never done it again (it was 3 months ago) so ok they are four but I think they need to know asap so it doesn't happen again so well done.

  17. Oh but you are a great parent - the fact you have thought this through and come up with such a great solution shows that so clearly

    Hoping it all goes ok

  18. oh i feel for you. my son just turned five last weekend. today i saw him kicking snow in the dog's face. what else can you do except slam the brakes on their little worlds?

    i HAVE done exactly the same thing you did in the same situation you're in; making my child apologize face to face. at four, i believe kids are only starting to develop the type of "empathy" that adults refer to. maybe at the age of four, my son doesn't care that he hurt another child; in a year or two when he gets it he'll understand why he was forced to apologize, and perhaps he will feel a little less bad about beating on another kid because he did apologize for it.

    i hope that makes some kind of sense.

    found you through (LOVE the letter to your hubby, too.. so sweet!)

  19. Oh, this is so tough. And when the little one doesn't show all the remorse that you would like to see, doesn't that just make it intolerable?

    I have such a hard time seeing my oldest son be too rough or not nice to his younger brother. It hasn't happened yet with any other kids (he's not yet 4), but I know that it will be really hard for me to find the right way to react. I was bullied badly at school and by my younger brother, and seeing even little pieces of it now sends me instantly right over the top. It doesn't lead to my best or most effective parenting moments, but it is so hard to know what is a normal part of learning limits and empathy and what deserves a much stricter response. How to be gentle and loving and trusting that he will make better decisions, and how to ensure that it Never Happens Again.

    Great post.

  20. Kindness. Yes. Sometimes I feel like I can't teach kindness, I can only SHOW it. But then I look at myself and I listen to myself and there I am, shaking a finger at one of the boys and YELLING. What type of kindness am I SHOWING? And yet I expect SO MUCH from my boys.

    I know for a fact that the toughest stages are yet to come and most days I feel inadequately prepared. Dealing with influences from the other kids at school is my weekly challenge now. Learned behaviors from kids on the playground and TV shows. It's all just so overwhelming.

    While my big kid hasn't YET punched another AT school, he does plenty of it in our home. I'm so tired of it all, but honestly, I know it's going to be a long, uphill battle.

    My biggest disappointments so far have been exclusive to LYING. I can tolerate a punch in the gut before I can tolerate a lie. Ouch, how it stings!

  21. I am so sorry. I understand the disappointment. Hopefully, he will learn from this and it will not be a sign of things to come. I think one good thing that came out of it is that now you know that a parent can do everything right and sometimes a child still makes the wrong choice.

  22. I'm not sure how in the world I found your blog, but here it is...a post that could have been written by me. I have 2 children, a son (5) and a daughter (4)/17 months apart. My son has tested boundaries since the day he was old enough to realize he had them. My husband and I have second guessed our parenting to the point of exhaustion. I laughed at the mom who thought something her child did meant he was destined to become a serial killer (paraphrasing). I've often told my husband that when my son is 17 we'll be communicating with him through jailhouse Plexiglas.
    Now for encouraging words...
    Some time ago my husband and I pledged to each other we would remain strong and consistent w/him every moment of every day (never wavering on our expectations and consequences) no matter how tough or tiring. Secondly, we vowed he will always know we're going to love him through every struggle. We are committed to not letting him become 'the bad kid' (in his mind or others).
    He started kindergarten this fall and is maturing like a champion. It's amazing what comes with age, consistency and love.
    Hang in there...all of your hard work will pay off in spades.


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