The funny thing about parenting (and running a funny parenting blog) is that you never really know what’s going to come next. You may think you have it under control, that you’re navigating the choppy waters successfully, avoiding all the circling sharks, but the next thing you know, bam! You cut your toe open on a jagged lego piece and the sharks move in the for the kill.
That’s a bit dramatic I’ll admit, but it’s exactly how I felt the day I found out my five-year-old son was a thief.
I was enjoying a nice lunch out with one of my friends when my phone rang. I hardly ever answer calls anymore because, well, texting, but I recognized this number as my son’s school and usually they send out voice recordings of current events which I like to listen to, because it doesn’t require me to actually speak to anyone. But when I picked up I quickly realized the school’s principal was on the other end of the line. Panic set in as I feared something terrible had happened to him. But I could tell from her voice that wasn’t the case.
It was at this point that, I shit you not, I really thought the only other explanation for why she was calling was to tell me he had done something extraordinary. Maybe he defended someone getting bullied; we always talk about the importance of standing up for other people. Maybe he just blew everyone away with his advanced math skills or lego engineering and she wanted to discuss options for gifted programs. I’m serious, I really thought that all my hard work was finally paying off!
Then she put him on the phone.
“Mommy” he said in his adorable little raspy man-child voice. “I took grape juice from the cafeteria…for the last five days.”
I knew the principal was listening so I measured my words, “Okay, well thank you for being honest. You understand taking things that don’t belong to you is wrong, right? Because we talk about that ALL THE TIME.” Deep breaths, deep breaths. He responds with, “It wasn’t just me though, mommy. Joey, Chandler and Ross* did it too.” At this point the principal got back on the line and informed me that not only had Cooper and his hooligan friends been swiping high-fructose corn syrup laden grape juice, they had also started a club called the “Bad Boys’ Club”.
*Protecting the identities of the other children. It’s too late for mine.
I suddenly hear the theme song from “Jaws” playing in my head. The sharks, they’re coming!
So, I did what any self-respecting mother would do in this situation. I played the cancer card. Yup, that’s right. When faced with the news that my son was the kindergarten equivalent of Winona Ryder in Saks Fifth Avenue, I told the principal that he had been going through a lot lately because of his dad’s cancer. I’m not proud, but at least I’m honest. I needed a life raft, because in that moment I felt like a failure, and I desperately needed to not feel that way. She was understanding, of course, and offered to set up an appointment with the school counselor for him. I wondered if she could set one up for me too.
The truth is, maybe that’s behind why he did it, and maybe it isn’t. Maybe he’s just a kid trying to figure it all out, just like I’m a mom trying to figure it all out as well. Or maybe he was just tired of me saying no to him every time he asks me for juice? We may never know the answer.
At any rate, as punishment for their crimes, the “Bad Boys’ Club” had to disband and pay back the cost of the juices from their piggy banks while also helping to clean up in the cafeteria one day after lunch. I went one step further and had him write apology letters to the cafeteria workers, explaining to him that what he did could have cost them their jobs.
In a follow-up call to the principal recently, I lamented how disappointed I was that he did this, especially given how much we talk about the concept of morals and making good choices. And what she said in response really made an impact. “Kids are going to make bad choices, we can only hope the ones they make are age-appropriate. And that we know about them. At five-years-old, if the worst he’s doing is taking juice, he’s right on track.”
I honestly never thought about it that way before. Whenever my kids do something “bad” I always internalize it and feel like I’ve done something wrong. But maybe, just maybe, I (and you with your own kids) should start accepting these things as part of his development; milestones on his path to ultimately (hopefully) becoming a person of integrity. I mean, at this rate, at the very least he could become the President of the United States someday! (too soon?)
And, though the call wasn’t to tell me he was winning the Good Samaritan Award, it turns out my hard work did pay off, because he was honest. He admitted and accepted his role in what happened and didn’t fight me when I explained to him what he needed to do in order to make up for it.
I may still be keeping the sharks at bay after all. For now.