I've made plenty of bad choices in my life, and I know my children will too. But that doesn't take the sting away when I see them behaving in a thoughtless way.
I'm not talking about everyday bad choices such as leaving a mess, not doing their homework in a careful manner, bickering over a game or all the other less-than-stellar kid moments that most of us deal with on a regular basis. I'm talking about the bigger decisions that matter most to me, which basically boil down to them being kind, compassionate people.
We had two happenings in our house recently in which my kids really fell short of my expectations. The first came when my older son, Tommy, graduated from elementary school. The journey from preschool to 5th grade had been a long, tough one for my 11-year-old, who was diagnosed with mild autism and pretty severe ADHD as a toddler. For my husband and I, his graduation day was a huge milestone, the result of tons of hard work and some tears on everyone's part -- kid, parents and teachers included.
So we splurged and bought Tommy an iPod. He loves music and doesn't have any of the many gadgets available for kids these days, and we figured it was a good time to let him enjoy one.
Tommy was thrilled. His younger brother, 8-year-old Sammy, was not.
When Tommy opened his gift, Sammy sulked. He pouted. He pushed his graduation present, a pretty darn cool Wii game, off to the side of the table and stalked out of the room.
Sammy is generally a very thoughtful and mature boy, and he'd also witnessed many of Tommy's struggles through the years. All of that made his behavior more disappointing to me. When I went to talk to him, he looked at me with the same sullen expression and said, "It seems like Tommy is getting all the attention and nobody cares about me."
I snapped a little. Sammy is a kid for whom life (so far) has come easily, and there have been countless situations when we've encouraged a frustrated Tommy to share in his brother's victories at school and on the athletic fields. You and Sammy are a team, we've told Tommy. So to see Sammy fall short of that when the tables were for once turned did not make me happy.
Sammy is my easy-to-punish kid, and the second I pointed this out to him, he crumbled. "I'm so sorry, Mommy!" he kept repeating. Yet he is still asking for an iPod and counting down the days until his birthday, seeming to think it's a given one will appear (it's not).
The second moment came on Father's Day. My husband, who has had a busy last few weeks on the job, had talked for days about wanting to take the boys out to play baseball to celebrate his role as a dad. Shortly before the three of them were going to head out to the fields, Tommy got a call from his best friend, who wanted him to come over to play. Tommy asked if he could.
"Remember, you were going to play baseball with your dad," I said.
"Oh yeah," he said. "It's a really hard choice. I'm going to do eeny-meeny-miney-mo."
The friend's house won.
Of course, we could have forbidden Tommy from going out, citing Father's Day plans, which in retrospect is probably what we should have done. But in the moment, my husband had said, "I don't want to be forcing him to spend time with me. If he wants to go, he should go."
My husband went out with Sammy and had a great time, but I'm sure he was a little sad, too. When Tommy got home, I pulled him aside and told him I was disappointed by his choice.
I think he understood pretty quickly, but as is his nature (maybe he's future lawyer?), he argued. "But it was such a hard decision that I had to do eeny-meeny-miney-mo," he protested. I tried to explain that in my opinion, that actually made his ultimate judgment worse, because he had known that baseball was an important part of the day. I showed him a newspaper cartoon that showed a dad tossing his son in the air, with text that explained an "iDad" was way better than any iTechnology.
That seemed to sink in. Tommy finished dinner, ran outside and asked his dad if they could play a late game of basketball. Dad said yes, and soon there was a lot of laughter coming from our driveway. I just wish I hadn't had to tell him that he should have been playing ball with his father much earlier in the day.
I understand that the words "selfless" and "kid" often don't go together, and that learning the world doesn't revolve around oneself takes time. I get that as kids get older, they'll want to hang out more with their friends than with their parents. Maybe my expectations are too high sometimes? I don't know. I just don't think my boys should get off the hook because they're young.
I have come to realize that I'm also OK with confronting and upsetting my kids. Of course, I hated seeing Sammy's tears and Tommy's crestfallen face. Yet at the same time, I loved seeing them. It meant that they felt badly.
Here's hoping they remember those feelings. And maybe clean their rooms, too.