“You cannot stab people! I shouldn’t even have to say this. You absolutely cannot stab anyone, but especially not your sister!” I sat on the chair in my room micromanaging this sibling jousting match gone south, the late afternoon sun lighting up my daughter’s tears, as my son looked guiltily on.
“But it was an accident.”
I looked at my child whilst plucking the lead from his sister’s arm with my Tweezermans. “No, your pencil didn’t accidentally land in her arm. You are almost an adult (totally untrue, he is years away from adulthood, but mothers say all sorts of things when dealing with assault and battery). Imagine if you were in a court of law, and imagine if you had stabbed someone and you told the judge it was ‘an accident.’ Where would you be? You would be in jail, and while your private school has well prepared you for life in the 21st century with all sorts of “out of the box thinking,” I can assure you that you are woefully unprepared for life in juvey.”
My son was clearly about to lose his mind trying to determine if this was a situation that would involve the police. I remembered all the times my brother and I beat the crap out of each other, in loving ways and not so loving ways. I actually recall a pencil tip and a leg, so perhaps the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Grins spread over their two faces as they danced the silent tango of sibling atonement, and I thought about how easily this incident had undone me. I wondered if helicoptering this situation would help or make it worse. It occurred to me that my brother and I fought all the time, only involving our parents when we couldn’t pull the offending instrument out of our bodies on our own. We fought, we made up, and sometimes we went to bed with half a pencil in our foot, but we figured that shit out. And that’s part of life. Determined to back off , I tweezed what lead I was able to grasp with the small instrument out of my daughter’s arm, slapped a bandaid on, and told them to work it out.
And they did. Two minutes later they were best friends again, playing on the piano and running through the house. Because that’s what kids do. They fight, they are loud, they run around, and bicker. If I am going to lose my mind and worry that I have an axe murderer in the house because of a little pencil incident, we are all going to wind up in the nut hut. Not all of us, but me, I am. I will end up in the funny farm. And if I rescue my kids every time they make a mistake or have an argument, I am depriving them of opportunities to learn to solve their own problems and get along with other people.
If you have four or five kids I bet you loosened up by the last ones in the birth line. Most of the kids I grew up with who fell fifth in line or later self monitored to a certain extent; and most of them ended up pretty darn successful thanks to their people skills and ability to talk with police officers when necessary. At times I have fallen prey to the very 2000’s notion that if we don’t shadow our kid’s every event, game, decision and action, we are somehow lesser parents.
Experts are out there telling us this tendency to micro parent deprives our kids of valuable chances to fail and make mistakes when the stakes are still small. Every child who grew up in the seventies and eighties is a walking example of the fact that you can live independently of your parents and survive, and perhaps even thrive.
When I was twenty something I had a boyfriend who had eighteen younger brothers. That number is an exaggeration, but not by much. When his parents traveled, which was always, again small exaggeration, I would babysit for the youngest five boys whose ages ranged from 6 to 15. My duties included buying condoms (and being told the sex was happening whether or not I acquiesced), taking kids to little league games, bringing them to pizza dinners and managing run-ins with social services.
Yes, that’s right, I was babysitting my boyfriend’s younger siblings and social services became involved. Looking back it sounds worse than it was at the time, mainly because it was the nineties, and also because when anyone has that many kids, they must know that the police and social services will be involved at some point in time, no matter how many Mercedes are littering the driveway.
One night, after I had fallen asleep, the younger kids were cooking, maybe? That’s actually unlikely; they were just being bad. The next thing I knew (and I am using phony names but it’s hard because twenty real names are all taken), Scott, the eleven year old, came and told me that Peter, the six year old, had thrown a knife at Brendan, the nine year old, and I probably needed to take him to the hospital.
Again, looking back I probably should have been awake, but no one stays up for the last of twelve kids to go to bed, and also, I didn’t expect anyone to throw knives. But since Peter’s nickname was “Problem Child,” maybe I should have stayed up and assumed things like knife throwing would happen. I was just so happy that I didn’t have to break up another keg party or buy more condoms, that I fell asleep early, without putting the knives in a locked safe.
So I went downstairs, and indeed, Brendan, had blood running from his earlobe, and clearly needed stitches. On the bright side it was just an earlobe, not an eye, so I was totally unfazed. I took the injured kid to the ER, but the doctor on call didn’t believe Brendan when he told him that his six year old brother had thrown a knife at him from across the room and sliced open his ear. Again, if this all sounds crazy and unbelievable to you, you have never been left in charge of the youngest five, of a family of over ten kids.
I was shocked when the doctor informed me that the police needed to come back to the house with us and talk to the six year old in question. Apparently this doctor, not an Irish Catholic doctor or he would have gotten the thing about ten brothers, didn’t believe the six year old threw the knife, he believed that perhaps an older family member had done this to the little boy.
So I drove Scott back and had to find Peter, who was shaking under his bed, terrified, because I had called the house to tell him the po-po were coming home with me. I remember it like it was yesterday, hugging that sweet little six year old and telling him it was okay. That while throwing knives is, generally speaking a bad thing, unless you are, you know, in the circus, he hadn’t meant to harm his brother and he wasn’t going to jail.
And when my son and I started to talk about his own pencil stabbing, he looked at me and said, “you know, I remember the story about when you babysat your boyfriend’s brothers and the police came, and I was so scared they would come tonight.” See, self correction. He’s fine. Most of our kids are OKAY. Me, maybe not, I am wound way t-o-o tight.
I remember the compassion and laughter I was able to provide my little ward twenty some years ago. I talked to him about better ways to vent his frustrations to avoid future run-ins with law enforcement, and so that he could, perhaps, lose the nickname ‘Problem Child.’ I knew I needed to channel some of the laid back babysitter vibe in my daily life with my own children.
I looked at my son and we laughed. He is sorry for what he did. But so am I. I am sorry that every mistake my kids make seems to register ten on my richter scale. Sometimes a mistake is a mistake, not a sign that we are raising serial killers.
And what became of my little charge, Problem Child? The last I heard he is doing very well, he is a talented athlete and musician. He is married and quite possibly raising little hellions of his own. The thing is, kids usually work things out without a parent standing by their side for every mistake, homerun, A+, or D. They work it out, and while it may feel good to think I am indispensable, that my kids need me for everything, it’s untrue, and not allowing them the freedom to err or succeed alone does them an injustice. I may just try pretending there are a few more kids running around so I can let the ones I have learn a little more about problem solving on their own.
Kathy Caprino wrote an amazing article this week for Forbes that discusses “7 Crippling Parenting Behaviors.” She does not touch on stabbing and knife throwing specifically, but it is a great read nonetheless.