As most of you know, my husband and I have four children, all grown now. When they were all under our roof, it was frequently difficult to discover who had done what. Questions like “Who has broken Aunt Rosie’s cobalt blue vase?” were usually answered by all four of them collectively and individually, “Not me.” Well, when the third child went away to college leaving Kristopher at home, Peter would say that “Not me” had gone to college too because now we knew that Kristopher was the only child at home. He couldn’t point to “Not me” for anything.
Nobody likes to be blamed, guilty or not, not children and not even us mature adults. But it’s so easy to blame that most of us do it quite skillfully. Unfortunately, we all too often blame those least able to deal with the blame, our children. We do it with the best intention, of helping our children learn to accept responsibility for their actions. But instead of saying, “Thanks, Mom and Dad, for calling me on it; I’ll own up to it right away,” our children creatively think of ways to defend themselves and to prove their innocence. Sometimes they are so ardent in their own defense that we begin to question our own certainty of their guilt and find ourselves in a real muddle.
Problems are more effectively solved if we begin by looking for solutions instead of blame. The dialogue one has with one’s own child depends upon the age of the child, but it might go something like this: “I’ve got a problem, and I need your help in finding the solution. Are you willing to help me?” By opening up the conversation with our child this way, we’re creating a blameless environment for the child so that she may be willing to talk openly and honestly with us. Our child doesn’t need to be made to feel bad in order to learn whatever lesson we want her to learn. In fact, when she does feel bad, there is less chance of her gaining any problem-solving insight that might be useful with this problem or with others in the future. When parents try to make guilt work with children, it usually backfires. Children become angry, either openly or inwardly, and often scheme ways to get even with us instead of deciding to cooperate with us.
Back to the cobalt blue vase – did I mention it was an antique? Well, I might as well tell you the rest of it. I kept this special vase in a cupboard in the kitchen that housed other glass treasures, some of which were used for special occasions or large gatherings. One day while fetching something else, I noticed that the vase had a nick out of the top of it and upon closer inspection I found that there was a large broken piece that had been taped back into the neck of the vase. It was obvious that a kid had done the tape repair job, but which kid? I thought about this and decided to try to create a safe environment for the one who was harboring the truth, so at dinner I said, “ I know none of you have ever met my great Aunt Rosie, who died before any of you children were born, but there are a few items in this house that remind me of her. One is this ring I wear sometimes. Another is a floral vase she gave to my mom, and the third item is a blue vase that she gave to my grandmother. I was looking at that blue vase recently and I noticed that there was a little triangular cracked piece at the top of it which someone taped over in an attempt to repair it. I don’t know how that vase got damaged, I am sure it was by accident, but I appreciate that whoever nicked it also tried to repair it. I just wanted you all to know that I understand how accidents happen and that I am not angry at anyone because the vase got damaged. Even though the vase is broken a bit, I am still able to lovingly remember my Aunt Rosie whenever I see that vase.”
The next day, one of our children came to me and told me how the vase had gotten chipped. It was an accident and our child had been afraid to tell me. I hugged and thanked our child for sharing that with me.
That night in bed, Peter and I talked about what had happened. We were glad that our child had been able to get rid of the fear of revealing what had happened, and we hoped it would carry over to other times. In an earlier time we would have fussed at our child and made that child feel even worse about breaking the vase and not telling us when it had happened, but by preserving our child’s dignity, Peter and I felt better about ourselves as parents. After all, even antique vases can be repaired, but a child’s sense of self, a child’s belief about whether he is a good child or not, is formulated bit by bit, interaction by interaction, word by word. It’s a lot harder to repair a child’s heart than to fix an old vase anyhow. We don’t need to make our children feel bad and suffer in order for them to learn the lesson.
Did this event have far-reaching results? Did the children then always tell us when they did something they needed to correct or repair? No, not always. But there were many times when they did and we celebrated those together. We tried hard to let our children know that they were much more valuable to us than anything they could break.
When we each think about how we want our family to live and work together, we want cooperation, consideration, and teamwork to be elements. Too many times our old parent “tapes” replay the mistakes our own parents made with us. The new tapes are empty and we’ve got to fill them with parenting skills that suit us and our children. Try erasing blame and substituting a quest for solutions. You might be surprised at how willing your children are to help you out.
Director/Elementary 1 Teacher