I got a call from my wife three weekends ago, when I was out of town and working on a story. She said our 5-year-old son had lost his baseball glove.
"Is he looking for it?" I asked my wife.
"Yeah," she told me. "But he says it's OK if he doesn't find it because 'Daddy will buy me another one.'"
This wasn't his first lost glove. In fact, I'd replaced his last one 13 months earlier—just as his summer baseball schedule was about to begin. The glove was only $12, I'd rationalized, so it wasn't a big deal.
But now, as I was listening to my wife on the phone, I started to get angry. First, I was mad at my son. Then I was disappointed in him. "Tell him if he can't find his glove, I'm not buying him another one, and he's not playing baseball again this year," I raged to my wife.
Then something surprising happened: I got mad at myself. I've tried my hardest to be a good parent to my two children, but maybe I'd done too much to solve their problems. Where had I gone wrong? Early in my life, my parents had taught me the value of things—and if I wanted to have those things I had to figure out a way to pay for them. I started to wonder if my mom or my dad would have rushed out to buy me another baseball glove had I lost mine, but I already knew the answer to that one.
So what had I done to raise a child who thought he could lose something and that it wasn't a big deal? In a word, everything. Break a toy? I'd find get another. Misplace a book? No problem. In a drug-rehab program, I'd be called an enabler. But in my mind, I was just trying to be a good dad.
"We don't screw up our kids because we don't love them," Kerry Stutzman, a Colorado-based parenting instructor and marriage and family therapist, told me later. "We screw them up because we don't want them to feel discomfort." Stutzman tried to make me feel better: "Look," she told me, "it's normal to feel like we're messing up. It's a normal part of being a parent."
Still, Stutzman said, I wasn't thinking through my son's baseball-glove issue clearly. Of course, replacing his glove wasn't a good option—but neither was my idea of what she called the "punitive" punishment of keeping my son off the baseball field. "You want your son to think through how to solve the problem," she said. Apparently, tyranny isn't an option.
Stutzman recommended discussing the issue calmly with my son, in a loving, empathetic way. At the same time, I needed to let him know that he created the problem for himself and that—though I'd help him figure out options—he needed to fix it. Or, as Stutzman put it: "'Oh, buddy, I'm so sad that this happened to you. What can you do about this?' It's all about them knowing that you will love them through the problem. Let them learn to work through these issues now because little price tags seem huge to little kids. As they get older, the price tag is only going to get bigger, and they'll learn to survive."
Among the alternatives, she said, was that I could have offered to take my son to a second-hand store, where he could use the small amount of money he'd saved to purchase a cheaper, older glove. Or maybe he could borrow one from a friend. "It's an opportunity to teach him to be resourceful," Stutzman told me.
Good advice, but I didn't have a chance to use it. On the day of the glove incident, my wife called back a couple hours later and said it had been found (apparently, without his help). Maybe that was a good thing. Would I have held him out of baseball? Or would I have caved and bought him a new glove, making the promise once again that this would be the last time—and I mean it, Mister? Either way, I might have been doing more harm than good.
Just as my son has to navigate this big world one small lesson at a time, I have to be a reliable compass. Maybe now, with Stutzman's advice, we can help each other find the right direction.
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