How I kicked off Valentine’s Day 2013 by asking for forgiveness…from my four-year-old.
Before turning in on February 13th, I spent a few moments readying a Valentine’s Day surprise for our four-year-old son, JR.
I carefully inscribed a short-but-sweet message in a book I’d selected a few weeks before, setting it at his spot at the dining room table alongside a construction paper heart declaring, “We love you, JR!” in big, black letters. The final touch: his very own bright red carnation1 presented in one of the tiny glass jars we keep on the kitchen windowsill–the very same ones we never, ever let him touch, even though he wants to so badly.
I felt pretty good about myself as I drifted off to sleep that night. Not only was I excited to see JR’s reaction when he woke up, I also couldn’t help but think I’d earned myself a shiny gold star on my metaphorical “Good Mother Chart.”
Little did I know that about eight hours later my behavior would warrant removal of that gold star…and probably a few I’d previously collected…oh hell, I should’ve just torn the whole damn chart down.
I woke up late that next morning feeling like complete death, thanks to a nasty (and determined) cold I’d been fighting off for the past week. Just as I dragged myself out of bed, my husband was on his way out the door for an early meeting, leaving me to fly solo on the morning to-do’s, child-wrangling, and school drop-off.2 Meanwhile, JR was so stoked about 1) his Valentine’s surprise that I’d so lovingly orchestrated and 2) the fun that his impending class party surely had in store that he was rendered into a not-getting-dressed, not-brushing-his-teeth, not-putting-on-his-coat blob of unhelpfulness. As I ran around the house like a crazy person, barking instructions at him, he moseyed along behind me, not following my instructions and chattering on about how his friends were going to love the Phineas and Ferb Valentines he picked out.
Looking back, I now realize that if I’d just sat with him and shared in his excitement for just a few minutes, our morning probably would’ve gone much differently. But I didn’t do that.
Instead, I snapped at him. I nagged. I shouted. I sighed lots of dramatic, exasperated sighs.3
He, in turn, whined a little and cried…well…kind of a lot.
By the time we pulled up in front of JR’s school, we were both a mess–his face streaked with tears and my furrow line (which usually doesn’t show up until about dinnertime on really bad days) already in full effect at 9:00 AM.
We didn’t say much as we hung up his coat and tucked Bunn into his cubby. I did get a hug before I left, but JR’s step somewhat lacked its typical spring as he joined his buddies at the breakfast table. I peered through the glass door as it shut, trying (unsuccessfully) to make eye contact with him and get in one more wave before we parted ways for the day.
“Oh, he’s probably already forgotten about it,” I told myself on the way back to the car. “I mean, he’s four. He’s probably so absorbed in his pancakes and chatter about Ninjago that he won’t give this morning a second thought.”
But what if he did?
Or if he didn’t, shouldn’t he? I knew my behavior wasn’t the worst the world’s ever seen, but I also knew I didn’t want him to think it was the norm or in any way OK–in our house or anywhere, for that matter.
With a heavy sigh (this time of the self-loathing variety4), I turned around and began my walk of shame back into the school building and down the hall to my son’s classroom.
It was time to repent to my four-year-old.
He turned as I opened the door, his face already covered with maple syrup. First he looked surprised and confused, sort of half-smiling as he tried to figure out why I’d come back. Then his eyes quickly reddened. His chin trembled as he warbled “Mama” and bolted into my arms.
Judging by his reaction, I think he knew why I was there. But it still needed to be said.
“Hey, bud,” I whispered into his hair.5 “I wasn’t very nice to you this morning, was I?”
He looked at me and did that sniffle-whimper-hiccup special move all kids are born with. You know, the one that kills you dead right on the spot.
“I came back to tell you that I’m so, so sorry. Even if I’m having a bad morning, it is not OK for me to act like that. It wasn’t fair. Do you think you can forgive me?”
I smiled, my breath catching in my throat.
“Thank you, baby. That makes me really happy. And I’m going to try very hard to not do that again, OK?”
Then he reached up, cupped my face in his (sticky) little hands and planted a (stickier) kiss right on my cheek. We hugged each other tight, whispered our I love you’s, and off he trotted to finish his breakfast with his friends.
As I pulled out of the parking lot and headed to work, I started to wonder how JR would remember that Valentine’s Day. What would stick with him? How I made sure he had a special surprise waiting for him when he woke up? How I spent the morning screaming at him basically for being four? Or how I came back into his classroom to say I was sorry?
Based on previous parenting experience, I realize it’ll probably be one or both of the first two choices; those are a bit more concrete and easier to talk about. But I’m hopeful that option three took root somewhere in his brain–that I made the process of apologizing seem both important and natural. I hope it helps him realize the importance of owning up to poor behavior, saying you’re sorry (and meaning it), and seeking forgiveness. Because that’s just what you do when you hurt people’s feelings–whether they’re friends, co-workers, family members, and especially four-year-olds covered in maple syrup.
— ∮∮∮ —
- What can I say, the boy loves flowers. Ain’t no shame in that game. ↩
- Not complaining, just offering a data point. ↩
- Sighs that wield such destructive power that I vowed to cut back on them in 2013. It’s going…OK. ↩
- Those are allowed. ↩
- Which always smells like maple syrup, whether he’s had any that day or not. ↩