I recently had a conversation with a friend about her 4 year old son and his newly discovered kleptomania. He had managed to steal something from Bunnings during their last visit. ‘What should I do?’ – she asked me. My advice was to put him back in the car and take him and the offending item back. He should apologise I said. ‘But he’s only 4! she wailed – ‘I don’t want him to feel bad’.
I don’t want him to feel bad. That made me sit on my heels for a bit. The Mama Bear in me totally gets that. We want to protect our cubs from the hurt the world dishes up. Perfectly normal, but is it really what is best for children? The part of me that has been charged with raising responsible, compassionate and resilient adults is not siding with Mama Bear.
What bad feeling was she protecting him from? Embarrassment? Guilt? Remorse? Shame? Those feelings are a natural and very healthy response to being caught stealing. I want them to feel that so next time the opportunity presents itself they will choose NOT to do it to avoid feeling bad. Feeling badly will deliver far more meaningful consequences for that behaviour choice than any tactic a parent could dream up, although I do suggest one of those is warranted too. Our job is not to protect them from life, it’s to prepare them for a life isn’t always fair, kind or forgiving. Once a bad experience has happened nothing can be done to make it un-happen. The only choice left is how to respond to it.
So what good can come of letting the bad feelings have their place? If we shield kids from those bad feelings we rob them of the chance to learn coping skills. I want my boys to experience these feelings while I am around so we can talk about it. About how they can make amends and about how bad feelings are just feelings, they don’t define who they are as people. Part of my job is to teach them how to deal with embarrassment, hurt, disappointment, shame, loss, anger and remorse. To teach them how to respond constructively, apologise meaningfully and make it right. To teach them how to be emotionally resilient. It’s my job to demonstrate those behaviours myself so they can see me dealing with it and moving on. The sooner they learn that life is not always fair (an echo from my Dad – ‘my darling who ever told you life was going to be fair?’) the happier they will be. As parents we need to be brave enough to let them experience adversity so they will know from experience that it isn’t a catastrophe and that mistakes aren’t the end of the world.
So how do we balance the burning desire to protect them with the need to let them experience life and figure this stuff out? Like most parenting dilemmas there is no one right answer. Know what is right for your child. Be confident in their, and your, ability to cope. Be their safe place and tell them, often, you love them no matter what. My boys know they could do the worst and I would still love them. I might not like their behaviour or condone their choices, but no matter what that is, I will always love them.
As parents we need to understand the value of adversity in our children’s life. A little bad is a good thing.