Tuesday, March 11, 2014


I had my first real parental battle of wills the other day. I was doing dishes while my daughter was eating her breakfast. I heard a big smash and turned to see she'd slammed her hand into her cereal bowl and strewn cheerios across the room. It may have been an accident, but she's taken to playing with her cheerios when she's full lately and I suspected otherwise (she's got impressive fine motor skills).

In hindsight (and at my wife's suggestion) I probably just should have had her help me pick them up. In the moment, I didn't think of it. I reminder her what I'd told her every day that week, "We don't play with our food. We don't throw our food." And I asked her to say "sorry" for spilling her cheerios.

She's said sorry before. She recognizes when she's done something wrong and when we ask, she's pretty good about apologizing. That morning she refused. "No!"

She's almost two. The "nos" have arrived and more are on the way. I get that.

I picked up the spilled cereal and told her she couldn't get down until she said, "Sorry, Dad." She was not happy about that. She screamed and (fake) cried for a while and just kept getting angry. I picked her up and sat her on my lap and calmed her and explained what had happened and why she needed to apologize.

My first thought was that she was too young to quite understand what had happened and I know children that age have trouble with if/then statements and consequences. So I asked her why I was upset and if she'd done something wrong. She responded pretty quickly and clearly that cheerios on the floor were her fault and it was wrong. I was surprised at her level of awareness. I asked if she would say "sorry." Again she refused.

I tried a different tactic, again asking what happened and she responded the same way. I asked if she would do it again. She got a huge smile on her face and said, "Yes!" She clearly had fun spilling the cheerios.

This is where the true parent conundrum comes in. She clearly knew what she did, that I didn't like it and she didn't care. She also knew I was holding her in my lap and she wasn't to get down until she apologized. Who gives in here?

If I believed she wasn't quite aware of what was going on, I could let it pass. Reminder her of right behavior and save the real lesson for later. But she knew. I could tell she knew. She said she knew. I could see in the mischievous eye twinkle she knew exactly what was going on.

It was a real battle of wills. And I'm pretty stubborn.

We sat on that kitchen chair for more than an hour. Every few minutes she'd ask to get down or cry and we'd go over the events of the morning again and I'd ask for an apology. "No!"

Finally, I knew this couldn't go on all day. I called my wife at work to explain. She didn't have any idea either, but she reaffirmed that we shouldn't let her get away with things she knows are wrong. She also hinted that perhaps 75 minutes of sitting was punishment enough. I put my daughter down after one more discussion and she calmly went and sat on the couch by herself for another twenty minutes and it allowed us both to recover. We had a great day overall.

It got me thinking, though, about apologies. Even a child younger than two had the urge to hold out rather than apologize for something she's not really sorry for. Where does that come from? It makes sense to me in older children or adults, people with a more developed sense of self and relationship - it's a protection, a sign of independence - but a child that young. I wondered (I still do) if it's something deeper.

In my family, after every fight, we had to say "sorry" and "I forgive you," whether we meant it or not. There were always those times when one or more of us refused and we had to sit in our rooms until we complied. Most of the time we said it just to be done with it and moved on (whether we meant it or not). I was always amazed that my parents never seemed to know (at least they never indicated they knew) that we were lying.

Of course they knew.

My parents were teaching us a whole mess of valuable lesson that I only came to appreciate much later. First, they were showing us how to finish a fight. When the arguing is done and the offenses are made, you apologize - and you forgive. That's how reconciliation happens.

What's more, they were teaching us (without us ever knowing - I was well over 20 and married before it dawned on me what I'd learned) that saying things you know deep down to be true (even when you don't feel like meaning them) helps you to internalize and live them out.

I say I'm sorry when I've hurt someone, not because I feel sorry or because I always regret saying what I said, but because I know this relationship is not one I want permanently broken. I know a fight takes two (or more people) and everyone is to blame in some measure (even if it's just a little bit), therefore an apology will be necessary unless we're ready to write off the relationship altogether.

I apologize because I know it's necessary, not because I'm sorry. And, you know what, that apology helps me be sorry. It might not happen right away, but it begins the healing process, both internally and within the relationship. The same thing applies to "I forgive you;" you don't have to feel it, just know it's necessary.

The principle applies to a lot of things. I've found it especially helpful in matters of faith or ethics. Saying, "all people are valuable" might be a lie if we're judging by our feelings and inclinations, but if it is a faith claim - something we believe deep down (even if we don't feel it), it is still true. What's more, saying it helps us feel it.

A lot of people will say this is being fake. I tend to believe that accepting your feelings as determinative of your actions is being fake. That's not really who you are, it's just how you feel in the moment. Feelings change. Our core beliefs rarely do. In fact, I'd say speaking only out of our feelings betrays a belief that our feelings define us.

Your feelings do not define you. No one wants to be judged by their weakest moment (or their strongest, really - that's a lot to live up to). We want to be taken for who we really are.

I'm not saying feelings don't matter - and speaking them aloud is quite helpful. "I don't want to be in this room right now," or "I don't like you very much at the moment," can be positive steps to resolution. But the expression of our feelings does need to be accompanied by an expression of our belief. "I don't like you very much right now," needs to come with, "I love you and that will not change."

I hope my daughter learns to apologize. I hope we can convince her that it's healthier for her and for everyone else to use those words of calm and comfort easily. I hope she can learn early that her feelings do not define her, but for now, I'll enjoy my stubborn little girl and the fact she still wants to talk to me about everything.

In the end, though, as much as everyone says she acts like me, she's very much like her mom in this way. After a few hours of cooling off, I asked her again about the cheerios and what happened in the morning. I asked if she'd say, "Sorry." She smiled and said, "sorry, Dad," and went right back to playing as if it were no big deal.

I suppose I still have a few lessons to learn about how to argue, myself.

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