Archive for June, 2013

The Science of Sorry

June 20, 2013

Tonight, whilst playing at the park, Boy 3 hit another boy with a stick and made him cry. Naturally I didn’t witness the offence because I was too busy talking to the victim’s mother, but I did manage to handle it with my typical lack of parenting aplomb. I chastised Boy 3, making him cry, then further intensified his shame by insisting that he apologise to the boy, who by now had been suitably comforted and distracted by his mother and was happily swinging on the swing.

Minutes passed by and Boy 3 refused to apologise, so I ended up saying sorry on his behalf to the profoundly disinterested child and his earnest but slightly bewildered mother. Awkwardly, we changed the subject and moved on.

This all too familiar playground interaction got me thinking about the art of saying sorry. It highlighted for me several important things: one, that I’m clearly negligent in my teaching of appropriate and fundamental social rules of engagement to my children; two, that perhaps knowing when and how to say sorry isn’t necessarily intrinsic to our nature; and three, that I am not good at saying sorry. I also realised that there are good sorries and there are bad sorries.

Clearly, it is entirely expected and appropriate to say sorry when you hurt someone. Even if it was an accident. This is being nice, showing remorse, and demonstrating concern for your fellow being. This is a good sorry. If it is said at the right time, to the right person, it can work positive wonders.

You can also say sorry for things done to others that you didn’t actually do yourself, but for which you nevertheless feel somehow responsible. All good.

Then there are some bad sorries, for which I raise my hand in guilty admission.

I often say sorry to people when they wrong me. I have apologised to people who have stepped on my toe. I apologise for not having something when I was not aware I was supposed to have it. I apologise for being early. For being late. For being on time. I say sorry to resolve arguments when I know I am in the right. I am guilty of a litany of sorries for which, yes, I am sorry.

Forcing a clearly shamed and guilty child to say sorry under duress is probably another bad sorry. I mean, what does it actually achieve? There are schools of parenting thought that would have a mother withstand hours of blistering torment forcing their tortured offspring to apologise. The apocalypse would befall them before they backed down. I don’t happen to subscribe to them. I have seen it happen: mothers in the playground upending picnics and quashing conversation in a stubborn determination to make little Tommy apologise. Poor little Tommy cowers beneath his mother’s stony glare and the nervy awkward shoe shuffles of others before finally relenting and murmuring a defeated “sorry” to his indifferent, if slightly bemused victim. What has Tommy learned? Thou must say sorry or else face a mother’s wrath? Is this good? I’m not so sure.

Tonight I took what in the eyes of Tommy’s mother would be the coward’s way out. I solved Boy 3’s conflict by apologising on his behalf. Boy 3 knew he had done wrong. He was guilty. He was sorry. He just didn’t know how to say it. Probably because I haven’t taught him how. Am I sorry for this?

You bet.

The fun never stops

June 13, 2013

A-ha. A new parenting challenge. Another curve ball. Thought it got easier after sleeping through, weaning, walking, talking and toilet training?

Think again, sucker.

Try school refusal. Imagine waking up each weekday morning, tentatively, nervously, anticipating the worst. A son, tired from sleep difficulties, angry, anxious, heels digging in.

“I’m not going.”

The dreaded words. Not today. Please.

The first rung on the response ladder: attempted lighthearted brush off. Have some breakfast. You’ll be fine. What classes do you have on today?

“I’m not going.”

Second gear: Come on. You have to go. You know that. School’s great! You learn heaps! Your friend/s will miss you.

“I’m not going.”

By now the ante’s upped. The clock is ticking. The bomb is primed. Bribery is attempted. Force is threatened. The shouts commence.

“I’m not going.”

What do you do? Give in? A day off – so what? He’s tired. Or: physically force him into the car, unwashed and shoeless, shouting, enraged, unforgiving. He will remember this.

Patience. Boundaries. Discipline. Consequences. Consistency. All bow at the mercy of those three tiny words: “I’m not going.”

Toilet training was nothing compared to this.

When you’re not strong

June 8, 2013

I have never been one to seek help. I never wanted to appear too self absorbed, too melodramatic, too intense. And I didn’t want people to think I was mad, even when I may have felt it a little myself.

Throughout my life, there have been distinct times when some professional guidance or even just friendly advice probably wouldn’t have gone astray, but I have always harbored the feeling that to verbalise one’s problems is to submit to failure. Admit defeat. Once you verbalise a problem, it is out there in the real world for everyone to see and you cannot take it back. Like a big black bubble it escapes into the ether and infects the air: the problem becomes real. You need help. But everybody has problems – why should anyone care about mine? A ridiculous double standard that I only ever applied to myself.

But lately I have had cause to rethink my attitude, and it has been nothing short of revelatory.

The last few weeks I have been tested. I have had my emotions stretched and pulled like a pizza dough. I have cried. I have wailed. I may have even growled. I have felt like a complete failure, at something so profoundly important and integral to my life that my sense of failure stopped me in my tracks. I was off track and floundering.

But then I reached out.

Not within myself, as I normally would, stoically, stubbornly determined to provide my own solution. I did not have the strength. No, this time I leaned. I leaned right out. I leaned on anyone who would listen, and it turns out there were a surprising number of people who did. I looked the feelings of failure and defeat in the eye and I learned that they disappear when you reach out. And people expect it. They come open armed. And they care.

Friends and family are the safety net around the trampoline of life. They are there to be leaned into every now and again when the jumping gets off target. We all have a safety net, and we each form part of someone else’s. I have tried jumping without a net, but now I know better.