There are so many reasons why I don’t punish my kids, but they mostly boil down to this: I don’t believe it is my job to make my children feel badly about their mistakes. I believe it is my job to teach them to repair them.
As unpopular (and wildly misunderstood) as this belief is, it has been easy for me to practice because of the confidence I have the value of restoration over retribution.
But when I walked into the backyard to find every leaf from our newly planted hosta torn and lying on the ground beside the pot, I was paralyzed.
How do we fix this?
When a drink is spilled (or “spilled”), it’s easy to grab a stack of rags so a child can help clean it up. When I find the kids in their playroom beside a mountain of Cheerios, one can help me gather the salvageable O’s into a Tupperware while the other grabs the dust buster for the crumbs. Even when one of my children pushes or hits the other, an effort at repair can be made by running to find a favorite blanket or stuffed animal.
This felt so different.
“Oh no!” I said, “All of the leaves are broken off of our new plant! I’m so disappointed that it won’t be able to grow anymore.”
And then I came up short. I couldn’t leave it at that, as I might have for two or three flowers plucked prematurely to garnish a batch of mud soup.
What is a parent supposed to do when there isn’t a way to make it right? For the first time in four and a half years of parenting, I wondered whether I should punish my children. The idea went against everything I work so hard to be as a mother, but I didn’t know what else to do.
So I said as much. “I’m really upset about the plant,” I said, allowing them to hear my frustration (or, perhaps, just unable to mask it). “I need to go inside for a minute and think about what we should do.”
I paced around. I hid in the bedroom. I wondered if I might actually be a terrible mother. I’m pretty sure I cried.
In my shock and disappointment, I couldn’t see a way to fix it. I wanted to call my mother and ask what she had done when my sister and I famously snapped the stem of every single Bird of Paradise in my parents’ front yard, but I wasn’t ready for the “what goes around comes around” jokes.
I didn’t know if there was any way to resuscitate the plant, but I decided to make the kids responsible for trying. After they helped me clean up the mess, I told the kids that I was going to put them in charge of helping the plant grow again and that we could go to the library and look for some books that might help. I knew he would be home after the kids’ bedtime, so I called my husband at work to let them explain what happened and tell him our plan for trying to fix it.
The next morning, just as we had planned, we walked to the library and asked for help finding books about gardening. Knowing the name of the plant, we searched the indexes and set aside the books with the most relevant information.
When we came home, we got out a notebook and sat down with our books. The Bug asked me to write HOSTA at the top of the page so he could trace it. After tracing the word, he tried a few times to write it on his own. We consulted the indexes again to flag the relevant pages and, as we went back and read, the Bug stopped me whenever we came across a piece of information he thought we should write down.
Empowered with information, he took on the job of caring for the plant. He decided that its current spot was a good one, shaded for nearly the whole day, and he monitors the soil to make sure it doesn’t get dry.
After a brief celebration when we noticed the first new growth, his expression changed and he remarked, “We need to find some sand to protect the leaves from snails!” We didn’t have any sand, but we got the broom and dustpan and swept up some fallen leaves from a nearby tree and used those instead to hide the tasty new growth from hungry snails.
Months have passed and, watching the plant thrive again under the care of my kids, I am so thankful that I didn’t just freak out and say, “No TV for a week!!” Instead of doling out an arbitrary punishment to drive home how angry I was, I sought to help them find a way to repair the damage they had done.
I got lucky this time. What seemed impossible to mend in the moment was easily done with commitment over time. Hosta are notoriously hard to kill. And I know that won’t always be the case. There will be times when my children make mistakes and there truly is no way to put the pieces back together. When all they can hope to do is repair the relationship and the trust of the person they’ve hurt. And I pray that, when they’re faced with those mistakes, I have empowered my children to own them. That they haven’t learned to hide their mistakes to avoid punishment but, instead, have learned that we all make poor choices sometimes and what counts is being able to admit it when it happens and do whatever it takes to make it right.