Recently, my youngest forgot to take his swim trunks to his summer day camp. He realized this error while we were turning in for drop-off.
We were just barely on time and this inconvenience was going to set us back, not to mention that it would cost me close to an hour of personal time to remedy.
I felt I had every right to let him learn a lesson. There might be no better reminder to be more diligent than to be forced to sit on the sidelines for 45 minutes while your friends are doing cannonballs and rousing rounds of Marco Polo.
But the more questions I asked him about why he had forgotten this important item, the more I became convinced that this really was nothing more than an honest mistake.
This was possibly the only morning that week where going back and retrieving the forsaken shorts would even be an option.
As we drove back to the house, I tried to be gentle, explaining that it was very important he think through all of the items he would need each day, how most days reversing course like this wouldn’t be possible. And I needed him to understand how this mistake affected others.
When I drove away after successfully returning him to camp, shorts and all, I felt good about the parenting route I’d chosen.
“You kept your cool, Brian,” I smiled at myself. “Well done.”
I labored over all of this because recently I have found that I often can’t decide when it is best to steer a lesson with my kids to compassion and when instead to teach about the realities of consequence.
I had an eye-opening conversation with a lifelong friend awhile back in which we academically sparred about political ideas, only to realize that we both thought we were accomplishing the same thing.
His desire for rules and consequences versus my call for constant second chances were both coming from a desire to help people. He sincerely believes that making people unwaveringly follow the rules will help them more than my tendency to let someone slide through a loophole from time to time.
The truth (as in most things) is probably that there needs to be a balance. But that balance is a hard thing to find and a harder place to live.
Or is it?
Stopped at a traffic light last weekend, I noticed a wheelchair-bound woman without legs begging for change. I had dollar bills in my wallet but looked around at the idling cars and hot sun and used them as excuses to ignore the woman literally right outside my door.
I had almost forgotten about it, until last night when, while tucking her in, my older kid mentioned how heartbroken she’d been when she saw that woman struggling to roll herself down the street. I didn’t even realize she had noticed her. She had said nothing in the moment. She then mentioned how she’d seen a woman in an SUV in front of us, two lanes over, get out and walk across traffic to hand the lady some money. This scene was still heavy in her thoughts days later.
“I wish I had had money to give her,” she said in innocent observation, with a sigh.
I was too ashamed to tell her I that I had been holding plenty to spare in my wallet – that I had considered it and decided not to do anything.
It seems I have been missing the point.
I’ve been worried about the high concepts. About whether or not I am right. I obsess over dumb lessons I want to teach about forgetting clothes but pass on important lessons about human connection.
Maybe my friend is right. Maybe I want our laws to have loopholes so I can justify staying in my air-conditioned car and being lazy. I don’t know.
But I do know that my words mean nothing when I don’t back them up with action.
And I have been teaching the wrong lessons. Sometime consequences are important. But compassion matters all the time.
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