Once a month, I meet with an ecumenical group of moms from our elementary school to pray. We pray for the district, the school, the staff, and our kids. We pray for everything we can think of. I always pray that if my kids do something bad that they will get caught.
This may seem counter-intuitive. Why would I want to get a call from the school that my child has misbehaved? Wouldn’t it be easier if they just got away with it?
No, because wrongdoing caught early is much preferable to wrongdoing never caught at all. How else will my kids change course? How else can we build character?
My children are lovely people. They are respectful, engaged, and compassionate. They are also tempted to all sorts of evil—lying, meanness, stealing, violence. I believe this dual nature resides in each of us. In our home, because we believe in telling the truth, we try to face this reality. We name it in our kids and in ourselves.
I suspect that Brock Turner did not get caught often enough early in his life. And that when he did get caught, he may not have been forced to face the consequences. As his case makes headlines, we are seeing the dark side of our national nature. The brutal treatment of victims of sexual assault by the legal system even as it pursues justice. The shameful inequity of sentences given to black men versus those given to white men. The tendency of American parents, at least privileged ones, to try to get their kids off and to ignore their children’s victims.
I would not want to be in Brock Turner’s parents’ place. To have the nation watching as I face the fact that my child perpetrated a hideous crime. To see his dreams of a Stanford degree and Olympic medals die. And, worst of all, to imagine his fate inside one of America’s prisons.
It is to avoid these outcomes that we must face our children’s dark sides now and mete out consequences now. If they get caught cheating on the 3rd grade spelling test, they are less likely to cheat on their taxes later. If they face real consequences for meanness on the elementary playground, they are less likely to perpetrate violence on their college peers. It is a grave error to make a habit of laughing off early transgressions, saying “kids will be kids!”
Children must learn to see other people. And we are the ones who must teach them. How? By explaining to our kids exactly whom their choices affect and how. We must draw a direct line for them from their actions to the people they hurt.
When our oldest was four, she took a marker and scrawled over every page of a library book. (Yes, it was a purple marker and yes, it was Harold and the Purple Crayon.) We packed her piggy bank into her little Thomas the Tank Engine backpack and trundled her off to speak to the librarian. We made it clear that she would be paying for the book she had destroyed. Why? Because that little book was so valuable? Because no child had ever before reaped such destruction? No, because she needed to understand that actions have consequences and that by destroying a book, she had not only stolen from the library but from all the other library patrons who might want to read that book.
That’s the bottom line, friends. Our selfish actions steal from other people. Society is a diverse eco-system in which an action by one member affects many others. There are very few victimless crimes. Help your children understand this and you will have gone a long way toward helping them to truly see others. Talk about the particular victims of their actions each time. Some sensitive children get this intuitively. Many others need regular instruction on it.
When I had two toddlers and a preschooler, I bumped another car in a parking lot one wintry morning. There was a visible dent in the car’s bumper, and the owner was nowhere to be seen. I was tempted to drive away. It was only a small scratch, after all. They would never know it was me, I reasoned. But my conscience spoke up. And so did my parenting instincts—my kids were watching. So, I put my car in park and left a note on the car with my phone number and email address. In crayon—the only writing utensil I could find in my diaper bag. When my kids asked what I was doing, I explained that I had harmed the other car and that I needed to take responsibility for it.
Friends, let us be quick to take responsibility for our actions. And let us help our kids take responsibility now lest they have to take responsibility later for much greater crimes. You will be more effective teaching your teenage son about sexual consent if you have taught him to see and value others in the first place. Painful though it may be, a call from the elementary principal is far preferable to a call from the police. A day without screen time now is much easier to survive than years in a federal prison.
©2016, Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things.