Something rather extraordinary happened during dessert tonight: Two children refused dessert in solidarity with my unjustly punished son.
All I had seen was the aftermath: Jake’s arm covered in milk, with milk dripping all over my friend Julia’s kitchen chair and rug.
I lost it, immediately. It’s bad enough when your kids misbehave and make messes in your own house, but when you’re a guest in someone else’s home it’s just about the worst thing that can happen. And since I had just spoken to Jake several times about roughhousing with his sister, I assumed that this had been a continuation of that behavior. And after he cleaned up his arm, I sent him away. In front of our hosts, I yelled at him to just get out, go somewhere else. I didn’t want to see his face, he wasn’t getting dessert. The other kids protested – they tried to tell me it wasn’t his fault – but I wasn’t listening.
I sat down and tried to act like nothing had happened. I was completely embarrassed and wanted to crawl under the table, but instead I put a cookie on my plate and started eating. And then I noticed that nobody else was. Fiona had an empty plate. Julia’s son had dessert on his plate, but wasn’t touching it.
Fiona said she wasn’t having dessert, and she looked at me like I had just killed a puppy. Julia’s son said he wasn’t either. Not if Jake couldn’t. This got my attention. I quietly asked them what happened, since it was not like Fiona to stick up for her brother without reason. She said that Jake had accidentally picked up a cup he thought was empty. It was a white cup filled with white milk. And since he thought it was empty he hadn’t picked it up all that carefully, and milk had flown everywhere.
Not exactly OK – he had been very careless – but not something that I would have come down on him so hard for.
I don’t usually go back on punishments. Once I hand a punishment down, that’s it – no talking or apologizing your way out of it.
But this was different, right? I had clearly misread the situation. And while I do think that was Jake’s fault – if he hadn’t been misbehaving for the past hour I wouldn’t have jumped to conclusions – I realized that I was being completely unfair. I hadn’t even given him a chance to explain himself, I’d been too mad.
I told Fiona to go get him. I explained to him why I’d jumped to conclusions, but also apologized to him for doing so, and we all sat down and had a nice dessert.
I’m so proud of Fiona. She tried talking to me, and when that didn’t work, she took a stand in a way that would both get my attention, and wouldn’t reflect badly on her, and it totally worked. And I explained to her later how important it was that she always stick up for what she knows is right, even if it means depriving herself of something she wants.
That’s all protesters do, just on a bigger scale. Instead of risking dessert, they risk their jobs, or their freedom, or sometimes even their lives. One of the things I have trouble modeling for my children is true selflessness. I do try to help other people, but there’s no risk in it for me. I donate, I volunteer. I don’t protest. It was exciting to see that side of Fiona, the side willing to risk something for someone else.
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