Definitely Worth Turning to a Life of Crime
This is a post about parenting. And perspective. And balancing the two.
You see, my son is a hardened criminal. If it weren’t for my request of leniency from the junior judicial system, he would assuredly be doing hard time. Like many people who find themselves on the wrong side of the law, at least half of my son’s problems stem from the company he keeps. And like many people in his position, he either can’t or won’t adjust his life so that these people can no longer influence him. As his father, I feel like I should be doing more to influence his choices. And yet I feel powerless, a helpless bystander. His latest crime – grand theft – leaves me feeling both dejected and frustrated.
My son is 9. He goes to a private Jewish day school. His most recent caper involved sticky fingers at the Scholastic book fair. He was goaded into his heinous crime on a dare he couldn’t say no to.
So what loot did he lift? What bounteous booty did he bag?
2 pencils, a sharpener, and 2 1/2″ plastic figurines.
My son was caught red-handed, the stash ripped from his genuine imitation army fatigues with 17 different pockets (the other pockets held rocks, miscellaneous legos, 2 of his sister’s hair ties and a handful of cat food (”You know, dad, just in case,” he later told me.). Since I help out at school, I found myself front and center at the crime scene and was part of the interrogation and punishment phases.
It was just like Law and Order, except everyone was really short. Imagine an episode of “CSI: Sesame Street” and you’ll have a good idea of how it looked.
During the drive home, I put my wife on speakerphone and we talked with my son about his motivation and what he thought about it now. It turns out he had felt pressure because he didn’t have (read: we didn’t give him) money to buy anything. So the dare came at a point where he was already feeling the tug of things he couldn’t have.
“You don’t understand, mom,” he confided, “I was just so mad that I couldn’t have the one thing I wanted. It is just one book and it’s completely awesome and I know I would really like it but I knew I couldn’t have it.”
(At this point I was trying to guess what book this might be – a Harry Potter book? Something from one of the newer fantasy series? Maybe a Jewish novel? So of course, we asked him.)
“It is the best book ever, Mom: “The Battle of the Red Hot Pepper Weenies” ”
Which is about the time I nearly ran my car off the road.
Turns out, it’s pretty difficult to maintain control of a vehicle when you are laughing so hard you risk ejecting your spleen through your nasal cavity.
Everything suddenly became clear to me. Even as a grownup, with all the rewards adulthood brings, I would totally consider theft if someone told me I couldn’t have a book called “The Battle of the Red Hot Pepper Weenies”. Who wouldn’t?!?
So I let him off the hook.
I think there is a huge difference between approval and surprise. Nobody should approve of a child stealing. But at the same time, nobody should be surprised when a third grader acts on impulse. As a parent, our job is to be ready for what may come. Before you remove the training wheels off the bike you take a quick run to the store to buy an extra box of bandaids. It’s not a question of IF you will need them, but when (well, at least in most cases). The day of the book fair, a call from the school may be a disappointment, but should not be a shock or surprise.
“Being ready” means accepting the wonderful truth that our kids will make mistakes. Unless you have one of those weird Buddah children who was born knowing everything, that’s how they are going to learn. Like the joke goes: “Happiness comes from good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience. And experience comes from bad judgment.”
“Being ready” as a parent (or an educator, or anyone who works with kids) means not simply having a glib list of painful punishments at hand, delivered without consideration for circumstances. To think we can help our kids grow responsibly using one-size-fits-all consequences is nothing short of lunacy. Bill Maher once said, “I have zero tolerance for zero tolerance.”
“Being ready” means being prepared to think quickly, to shift gears, and to help show your child that there is justice in the universe. How do I could I possibly know that’s true, let alone inflict such an insane idea on my children? Because “Ani Ma’amin“, I believe with perfect faith that there is a God who made the universe that way. I also believe with perfect faith that when God blessed me with a child who was so much like myself that even strangers comment on it, I was being offered a partner position in the whole “universe has justice” gig. Knowing him like nobody else in the world, I’m the one who can stop him before he sticks his finger in the light socket; and to be the loudest voice to cheer when he avoids one of our (his and mine) classic blunders.
“Being ready” means remembering that laughter is part of my job description too. So after I recovered myself enough to avoid causing a 17-car pileup, I told my wife we’d be a few minutes late. Then I did two things: went to the book store to buy a certain book, and talked with my son about jobs he could do to pay for it. I also told him that we didn’t need to discuss what happened at school any more (unless he wanted to).