As a parent, I would love to say that I reserve my frustration for times when it is truly warranted. Indeed, Dr. Montessori said that teachers must rid themselves of pride and anger. In the classroom, no problem. At home, with my own children, it is a different story. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some loose cannon. In fact, I feel like I do a pretty good job most of the time. But then I have moments like this morning.
Sitting at my desk typing this, it all seems so simple. They’re little children. Brothers. I’m the grownup. I’m the dad. Their dispute was over a Lego piece. It doesn’t take Jimmy Carter to fix that one. That’s how it looks right now. Easy. But back in the moment, that simplicity was lost on me and some illogical, reactionary part of my brain took over. I jumped in with no exit plan and now I’ve got to clean up my own mess. Fortunately, having been in this position before, I know what to do.
It is Friday of the first week of school and we have only the basic scaffolding of a morning routine. Still, this morning was already off to a good start. Both kids were awake by 7:00. Robin (5yr old) peacefully looking out his second-floor window at a baby deer, hidden in the tall grass. Beaux (3yr old) was playing with some Legos in his room. Our 9 week-old puppy had already been fed and done his business outside. I was downstairs in the kitchen, enjoying a cup of cappuccino from our newly purchased Nespresso machine.
Then I heard Beaux, upstairs, demanding that Robin hand over a particular Lego piece, which he felt belonged to him. Newly three, Beaux is in a stage of development where his proprietary claims are almost entirely based upon what his older brother is holding at that moment. Robin, to his credit, is usually very generous and excellent at compromise and redirection with Beaux. Better than me sometimes, actually. However, this morning he was not interested in compromise and, in retrospect, I can’t blame him.
As the conflict began to audibly escalate, I made my way upstairs to find my Montessori teacher wife, exhibiting wonderful patience and understanding. She had temporarily re-directed Beaux so that he was focused on getting dressed. Then I realized time was rapidly slipping away from us and we needed to get out the door soon. Aside from going upstairs at all, this was probably my first mistake. Nothing ever goes well when you rush children. But there I went, projecting my own sense of urgency on the situation and demanding that Robin hand over the Lego. I added, somewhat harshly, that the piece was both of theirs and since I had actually purchased said item, it was technically mine. If they could not make the right decision, I would make it for them.
Not surprisingly, no one else in the room saw it this way. No decision was made. So now both children were upset and feeling fairly disrespected. Jill was justifiably nonplussed by my intervention, but reserved comment -save for the teacher look she usually gives to adults acting like children. Instead of retreating, like any sane person would do, I continued. I asked (demanded) Robin to give me the piece again. He complied and I escorted him to his room to provide some separation.
When we arrived at his room, Robin, rightly so, was upset at the injustice I had just perpetrated. One of the worst things a parent can do in these situations is to placate the younger sibling by taking away from the older one. It’s just the wrong message and, if done too much, can actually erode the sibling relationship. For some reason I forgot that. “Your job is to get dressed.” I said. “Do that.” Then, wholly unsatisfied with the entire exchange, I decided to return to the kitchen to avoid further mistake. I left Robin’s room to the sound of significant displeasure.
Looking back, I’m not really sure what my strategy was in that moment. It was obviously not premeditated. I don’t recall what I did for the next several minutes in the kitchen, but I’m pretty sure I was largely useless. Then somehow, miraculously, both children and Jill emerged from upstairs smiling and happy. Robin gleefully greeted the puppy and started making a cup of coffee for mom. Beaux got himself a glass of water and sat down to enjoy his breakfast.
I don’t know if this is a common experience for dads -being bailed out by mom. I suspect it happens quite a bit. Although not everyone has a trained Montessori teacher on the home team roster. Just about every mom knows what it is like to clean up dad’s mess. We dads may not share our appreciation for it enough, but moms have a great way of helping us learn from our mistakes. Every now and then, we may even do the same thing for them.
There’s no denying that today was a mistake. I’m pretty sure I would have known that even without Jill. So there’s still more to be done. I have to apologize to Robin. Apologize for failing to trust him. And when I apologize, I’ll explain what I should have done differently. If I had handled the situation properly -as Jill proved, both children were perfectly capable of resolving the dispute. If I can communicate that to Robin, then (in my mind at least) it almost negates the mess I made in the first place.
Maybe this seems a bit strange to some of you. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t all that big of a deal. The kids almost certainly have already gotten over it. Is an apology really necessary? Perhaps not, but there is a surprising degree of value in a parents’ apology to a child and it is not something I do every day (although the opportunities are surely there). There is no better way to teach a child than to model the behavior you wish to see. Knowing when and how to apologize is a skill that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.
I’m actually kind of looking forward to it. Children are the best people in the world at accepting apologies. At the rate most parents make mistakes, we should all be thankful for this. Unlike us, young children don’t hold grudges. They are pretty adept at understanding when we make mistakes, but most children don’t even realize they have the right to expect an apology from an adult. So in the moment, they take only the best from the situation and provide amazing understanding and forgiveness in return.
I hope it is clear that I’m not saying parents should go around apologizing for every little thing. Every parent makes mistakes. You should be making mistakes. Sometimes it is just best to learn what you can from them and move on. But when the opportunity presents itself, remember that apologizing to your child may be the best thing you do all day -for both of you.