We had a rough day in Barnhill-Land yesterday. My son – good-natured, enthusiastic, vigorously naughty, and incredibly creative – pulled out all the stops in the carpool. He and the neighborhood miscreants (all wonderful, beloved boys; all prone to lapses in judgement; we grow, we stumble, we fall, we grow some more), in the back seat of the minivan, started in on a whirlpool of naughty talk. It was like they were all competing for the Jerk-of-the-Year award – and it’s only January. Bad words. Inappropriate jokes. Bathroom talk. Penis jokes. Pretending to flip off the driver (my neighbor; 250-pound ex-farmer; bad move, boys). And then actually flipping him off.
And it descended.
And they got mean.
And they got nasty.
At one point my neighbor turned the car around and started back for home. At the possibility of facing their mothers and generally being ratted out, they changed their tune instantly.
The thing is, I remember this from childhood. Bad energy. Bad air. And how it felt bad too, and kind of sick, and yet, upsettingly, vaguely exciting as well. Like violence on television – you don’t really like it, but you watch it again and again. And it grosses you out, but you can’t look away. And I remember how it fed on itself. And how, once it started, it couldn’t stop. The fights with siblings. The way my classmates and I would raise our hackles and turn on Substitute Teachers (the kid who could make a Sub cry was always held in high regard). Neighborhood squabbles. Playground nastiness. Mean girl stuff. Group divisions, carefully laying down who was in and who was out. I remember feeling the air change – how it would get heavy and thick, like the sky was pressing down – and either being the target of the nastiness, or standing by and saying nothing, too fearful to step up.
I know that sometimes kids will be aware of themselves behaving badly, but once it starts, they feel powerless to stop it.
They aren’t powerless, of course. They have all the power in the world. They just need to be taught. And that’s our job.
There was, yesterday, a flurry of emails between the parents. Yesterday afternoon, it was my turn to drive. I re-arranged the seating order, I got all the kids buckled, and then I pulled the car over. And rained fire.
“The adults who love you,” I told them, “are able to see your Best Selves. When you show your Worst Selves, it hurts us very much. Jeff loves you, and each of you hurt him today – either by your words, or by not standing up to your friends and telling them to knock it off. It hurt me, and it hurt the rest of the adults too. And it hurt you too. And you know it. Each of you was hurting this morning.”
When we got home, I had Leo own up to what he had done, and I had him write a letter of apology to our neighbor and deliver it in person. He didn’t want to do it. We talked about manning up.
Once we got to the other side of that, we talked about consequences. I’m a big believer in having kids take responsibility for their own behavior – and part of that is taking an active role in their consequences. Leo’s consequences are much harsher than I would have levied. But they are authentic to him. And they matter to him. And, what’s more, he knows what he did wrong, he doesn’t want to do it again, and he wanted to make amends.
By suppertime, we were emotionally exhausted, and spent.
“What if I stay bad?” Leo asked.
“You won’t darling. You will make choices. Some will be good and some will be mistakes. You’ll do your best to fix your mistakes. You’ll try to heal the things you break. Just like everyone else.”
“But what if I break?”
“Then you will fix you. Just like everyone. Everyone you see is broken. Everyone you know has mended cracks and parts that will never work right again. It doesn’t stop us from learning and loving. We mend, we heal, and we love the broken places. I have lots of broken places. But I still have a responsibility to work and love and build. And so do you.”
He was, last night, a shadow of himself. He was crumpled paper and shattered glass. The reality of being such a jerk to a person he loves and respects had devastated him. I hugged him, and he started to cry.
So I built a fire in the fireplace. I canceled my plans for the evening. I sent him upstairs to brush his teeth and told him to bring Treasure Island back down to me. We sat, he and I, under his Batman blanket next to the fire, stories of misplaced loyalties and loudmouthed squires and bloodthirsty pirates and the creaking hull of the Hispaniola spinning around us. And Jim, the cabin boy – brave, trusting, fatherless, full of big plans and adventuring. And John, the cook – broken, beaten, scheming, and yet, in the end, redeemable, and capable of that One Good Thing.
We read and read until he fell asleep on my shoulder, his little arms wrapped around my waist. My broken, brilliant, beautiful boy.
We are all mended cracks and creaky gears. We are broken smiles, broken hearts, broken minds and broken lives. We are hack-jobs and cast-offs and wobbly legs and gouged surfaces. We are soft edges, scuffed corners, ungleaming and unvarnished, but pleasant to hold and comforting to touch.
And we are lovely, and loving, and loved.