By Michael Harburg
My newly three-year-old son Sam, who has learned a few things in his day, one morning found himself alone in the house without those two big supervisor people, for the first time. Mama had to leave abruptly to go to work, and I, the father, really wanted to finish digging the garden in the back yard. Over the course of a few minutes I went in to listen at the back door a couple times, but he seemed to be doing OK. Then, the inevitable crash followed hard on by the urgent cry, “PAPA!” I ran in and found Sam in the middle of a back porch in a very advanced state of disarray. As if a tornado had just ripped through it.
Sam sometimes resembles an elf, as he is about three feet tall, has blond curly hair, and can be as wise as the ages. After my quick survey of the chaotic scene, I looked down at this elfin son and asked in my best stern voice, “What happened?” Sam had the look of someone who knows he has sinned (as defined by the higher ups) but doesn’t necessarily feel guilt or regret, because it had to be done. And that was the way he answered me, speaking in a very straightforward, compellingly honest tone, spilling the whole beans all at once. “I banged on the window, and, I spilled water—but, but, I cleaned it up, and, I bonked the door,” he said, pointing at the dehydrator door on the floor.
This litany of no-nos was like a three-alarm fire at the parental fire station, and my mind instantly leaped into parental action mode. We had told him millions of times not to bang on the front window, but to no apparent avail. (On the other hand, I had heard it when I had checked in, and had recognized that he was banging with restraint so as not to be in any danger of breaking the window (his way of compromising). Which is why I hadn’t said anything at the time.)
I decided I needed to get a fuller inventory of all the damage before pronouncing the guilty verdict and the sentencing. “Show me the spill,” I said in a dark, ominous tone, indicating my serious displeasure. He obediently ran into the kitchen and carefully explained how he had knocked over the watercoloring water, which spilled here, and (running over to the rag cabinet) he had gone, here, to get a rag to clean up, and (running to the back corner) he had thrown the rag, here, in the dirty rag bin. Though I was assuming the angry father posture because of his conflagration of wrongdoing, I nevertheless found myself secretly admiring that he had cleaned up after himself so thoroughly and appropriately. Then, without any prompting, he ran out and pointed again at the dehydrator door that had fallen off. The hinges had broken long ago, and we had asked him–again, a million times–not to touch it. But for some reason it held an irresistible temptation for him. After this full and complete remuneration of all his wrongdoing he fell silent. He was cognizant that he had done wrong and that he might well get into trouble, but–and this struck me–he was not afraid. There was a pregnant silence as he stood, turned 90 degrees away from me, stared fixedly at the wall, and guardedly awaited his fate.
A slew of the usual punitive parental responses flew through my mind: “Here we leave you in the house for just a few minutes and you go wild! How are we going to trust?!” “Sammie, we’ve told you over and over how dangerous it is to bang on the front window!” (Although, he had banged with restraint.) “We let you alone for one second and you go and do all the things we have told you not to.” (Though he did do a great job of cleaning up after himself.) “Papa is really disappointed in you. I thought I could trust you to be by yourself . . . .” ( But he was being very trustworthy by telling me exactly what he had committed.) Wait–maybe a consequence would work better . . .OK, let’s see . . . “Sammie, this shows us we can’t let you be by yourself, if you are going to act like this.” “Sammie, I need to take away your play hammer if that is what you are going to do with it.” But none of them fit. None of them fit, and I was at a loss for what to do.
Then, in a sudden, sharp flash I beheld this honest, fearless little 3 foot high guy in front of me who had, given a moment of freedom, very deliberately done what he had needed to do, which is, test out that freedom. Because that’s just what a 3-year-old must do with his every new taste of freedom. I also saw how he had done it with a great awareness, had cleaned up the water spill very admirably, and now was taking complete responsibility for it all. It was, all in all, very impressive. I felt my heart softening. Suddenly, the shaming, punishing voice in my head was chased clean away by a huge tidal wave of fierce fatherly love, so outsized that it about burst my heart. I almost couldn’t breathe for a moment, I was so moved. This flood of aching tenderness for my beloved son served as a timely reminder that I desperately did not want to re-inflict the pain of my generation and the generations of wounded children who lived in my blood. I cringed at having almost perpetuated the old, traditional punishment of little children for doing what little children must do—explore the boundaries of their world. You see, I fervently want my son to escape the trauma of being demeaned for following his natural impulses. I fervently want my son to grow up knowing that he can make a mistake and not be burdened with that inner voice of shame and guilt.
Looking at him stoically waiting there, I could plainly see he was well aware that he had misbehaved; I did not need to reinforce that. And the appropriate time for giving consequences for the window banging had long since disappeared into the non-existent past. At this moment, he was doing exactly what I would want him to do: being completely honest with me.
And that’s when I finally remembered the most important, the most crucial understanding that I wanted Sam to learn in his childhood: that I loved him no matter what. And well I knew that I had to show this to him with my actions. Occasionally mouthing the right words just wasn’t going to cut it. As I gazed at him waiting quietly there, still prepared for whatever dark fate might befall him, I beheld the perfect opportunity. Carried away by this hot flood of love, I impulsively fell to my knees and gathered Sam passionately into my arms, and whispered to him in a quavering voice dripping with tenderness, that I loved him very much. On his part, he tolerated my overwrought show of affection with a seeming complete indifference; there was no outward response at all. But neither did he resist it, as he usually did. Nevertheless, the subtle, intuited perception of a softening deep inside his little body as I tightly hugged him led me to believe that my message had indeed been taken in: that a small seed of trust had been sowed in his deepest inner heart, where he might forever know–in that primal emotional foundation that exists below the level of words–that regardless of what he does or how he acts, he will always be loved.
The painful cycle of wounded children who grow up, have children, and then lash out at their own children–is stopping right here and now.
Let the healing begin.
“Michael Harburg works in Social Services in Olympia, WA, where he strives to put to good use the “Positive Parenting” principles that inspired this story.”