Earlier this week, a group of boys chose to play a stupid game that some ten year old boys might play. It’s called “pantsing” in which one tries to pull down the pants of another. Several kids did it, several kids got “pants-ed”. My son happened to pants a child who, while actively participating, got very upset that it happened to him. He told his mother, who told the school. The end result was my son having to miss an end of the year all day school trip and stay behind with the associate director of the school. One other child also had to stay behind. The others involved did not have to stay behind or have any consequences.
I agreed that he should have punished. This was a very safe place for him to learn the lesson that actions have consequences. I did not agree that he was the only one to suffer the consequences because all the boys were playing.
“It’s not fair,” I said to the director. A woman I admire and have known and trusted for years, she could not hold back her disbelief that this 42 year old woman was using the words of a first grader. So she took an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper and filled the page with these words: KNOWING WHEN TO STOP.
My son was waiting outside because I didn’t want him to focus on the not fair part. I wanted him to focus on his actions and only he is responsible for them; and another child was hurt and embarrassed by his actions. The director asked that we be silent as she delivered his consequences. He walked in and sat in the hot seat, read her piece of paper, and kept his eyes down as she explained that he was getting consequences because he didn’t stop.
I left the school in a hurry because I was angry, frustrated, sad, and couldn’t get over the fact that IT WASN’T FAIR.
Over those three exhausting days, I had some very rich conversations with my husband, friends and son. I called friends whose opinions I respect and literally cut and pasted some of these conversations back to my son. I saw my son open, learn, evolve in front of my eyes.
When I first asked my son about it, he responded, “But Nathan told me to do it.” I got to reiterate my regular mantra that “You, and only you are responsible for your actions.” This actually wasn’t that rich of a conversation because it was more like my regular preaching and him putting up with it. I still have hope that one day it will seep in and register.
But it was an opener. He asked, “Would you have called the school if I had my pants pulled down?”
I pause and think before I slowly answer. “No. But I would call the school if you were really hurt and feeling unsafe and thats why Mike’s mother called. I would have asked you more questions so I could understand the circumstances. Once I understood that boys were all playing a game and laughing and having fun and then you got upset because it happened to you, I would tell you that now you know not to play that game. I would give you a hug and tell you that I am so sorry you got embarrassed, but I would point out that was part of the game you chose to engage in. I would ask you to think about this the next time a situation like this arose.”
My son then said, “Mike always does that. He always plays and then when he doesn’t like it or he gets tagged or something doesn’t go his way, he goes and tells and we get in trouble. That’s why no one wants to play with him.”
I refocused the discussion on his choices. “Do you understand that one of your classmates was hurt, humiliated, and embarrassed because of your actions?” My son just wasn’t able to go there yet.
“Mom, it was a game. It happened to Nathan and Jake and Tom. They didn’t cry. They laughed. Mike (the victim) even laughed so hard when it happened to them. The only reason it didn’t happen to me is because I was wearing tight pants.”
I tried a different lesson. “So you still don’t know how it felt to have your pants pulled down. You don’t know what it feels like. Every person is sensitive to different things. These were his feelings. Yes, he was involved. Yes, it was his actions that put him there. But he also had valid feelings that he may not have been expecting. We all have our touchpoints and they need to be respected.”
The ease of these many conversations ebbed and flowed over the three days. Some topics were easier than others. I was angry about the consequences and angry about how this child and mother and the school handled it. I was trying to teach my son that people handled situations differently, yet I was mad they wouldn’t handle like I would.
At one point, I realized the director was not going to change her position and the group would not be treated the same. I had to come to peace with it. I could not let it absorb me anymore. I decided to use her lesson. My son does get in the middle of things, and yes, he does need to learn when to stop. This is an issue for him. Painful and frustrating, but the truth. We had long talks about KNOWING WHEN TO STOP. That very night he took my daughters head bands and started shooting them like rubber bands at her. She asked him to “please stop” several times. I came up and gently reminded him that knowing when to stop is the lesson we are working on. He responded immediately and picked up the headbands.
My goal as a parent is not only to protect them, but to teach them to make the right choices when I am not around. He did not respond to his sisters requests, but when I used these words with him, it hit home immediately. I explained to try to remember these words and listen to others.
When I tucked him in bed, he spoke of thinking about stopping. He was remorseful, but not saying much, but not wanting me to leave. I said I was thankful that the director took the time to write that down for us and explain that part. It will help you as you grow up. I spoke of a pack mentality and how we sometimes make decisions in a group that we wouldn’t necessarily make on our own. I talked about the challenges coming his way the next few years. I said there would be situations involving drinking and drugs and he could come back to this moment and remember his lesson about KNOWING WHEN TO STOP. I talked about listening to girls and being physical with them and he better KNOW WHEN TO STOP and listen to her words.
He said, “Mom, I just don’t understand why I have to stay back and the others don’t. It’s not fair.” Ahhhhh. My touchpoint. I had spoken with a friend earlier that day about this and I used her words. “Let’s try not to use the word fair. Fair is relative. Everyone has different ideas about what fair means. I will tell you this. If I was the director, I would not have made that decision. I would have had all the boys have a consequence. But I am not the director. She is and it is her decision to make and we have to abide by it because she is in charge.” He has not mentioned this again.
The next afternoon I picked him up from school and we headed out quickly. I was a little tired of all the deep conversations and the mood of the week, so I said, “Did you pants anyone today?” My very funny lighthearted boy seriously told me, “It isn’t funny, Mom.”
He was clearly hurting so I needed to turn it back on and be present for him.
“Here’s the deal, Mom. I feel really bad that Mike was embarrassed and hurt. I really do. And it doesn’t feel good that I was the reason he felt that way. But I am still mad. I am mad that I have to stay back and the others don’t. I am mad that he plays and then runs and tells. I am mad that I am taking all the blame. I wanted to apologize to him but I didn’t know if I could because I was mad.”
“What do you mean, you didn’t know if you could?”
“Well, would it still be sincere? If I have mad feelings while I’m saying I’m sorry. Can I have both of those feelings at the same time?”
My eyes became an instant dam. It took everything to hold back the tears. How was he able to verbalize this? I finally said, “ Yes. I think you can hold both feelings at the same time. As a matter of fact, you just helped me to understand my feelings. That is exactly how I feel.”
As I was driving him to school today, to spend the day with the director while all his classmates attended the field trip, these were my words: “Here is my assessment of the week: I think a group of boys was playing a silly game, and boys will be boys. I don’t think it was as big of a deal as its turned out to be. I think we are lucky that we got to learn some good lessons and have good discussions. We cried tears together and we got mad together and at each other. You got to learn about knowing when to stop and will always have that lesson in your toolbox.”
And finally I said:
You are my son and I love you deeply. I love your personality. I love how happy and carefree you are. I love your boundless energy and your endless enthusiasm. I envy the way you can instantly join any group and have so many sets of friends. With that personality comes its challenges. You will be impulsive. You made a mistake. You will make more mistakes. Forgive yourself. I love how you are able to admit your culpability, make amends and move on. Your integrity is inspiring. I love how you engage in life and I would not trade your personality for anything. I know it will be a tough day for you and I’m sorry.
He gave me a hug before he walked into school and said, “It won’t be that bad, Mom. I love you.”
And all of a sudden, I realized that IT’S NOT FAIR. None of the others had the opportunity to learn such lessons this week. None of the others had so many rich conversations. No one else got to stop time and watch and experience both the magic and the searing pain of the deepening of their child’s soul before their very eyes. Yes indeed, IT’S NOT FAIR.