The Swim Meet Incident
It was one of those cringe-y times in parenting. Last week, my 9-year-old son crossed the line and got himself into trouble. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say he got kicked out of his swim meet for taking a dare. The dare involved public urination and a glazed donut. I know… don’t ask. All I can say is I think the brain development of a 9-year-old boy must be lagging significantly behind their desire to fit in and have fun.
I should tell you that this kid is a great person. He loves to participate, is quick to make friends and share a laugh, and – for the most part – follows the rules. So, the first reaction for me and my husband was “What was he THINKING?”
Then, “How do we handle this??”
We were pretty sure we were going to need:
A well-stated lecture…
A deep display of contrition…
Some serious consequences.
As parents, what do we have in moments like this? You have to think quickly, react appropriately, and respond effectively. Likely, your head gets flooded (as mine did in that moment) with what you’d LOVE to do (scream, maybe?)…what your parents would have done (harsh punishment, probably)…and a little fear and uncertainty (there’s GOT to be a right way to handle this, right?!).
I’ll tell you what we did.
I’m not telling you what we did because is the “right” thing to do. I’m telling you because I want to share a proud moment for us as a family. Just like most other parents, we want to do right by our kids. We want them to grow up to be not just good, but great. We want to lay the foundation for them to cooperate and contribute positively, and to do it with love.
To do that in a moment like this requires a little reflection on the true psychological needs of a child in a moment of disgrace. My husband and I find ourselves regularly pausing our initial reactions and thinking together how to use mistakes as opportunities. We do our best to uphold our family values of love and respect at all times.
Addressing the Mistake
We sat my son down. He was tearful and worried about what was coming.
We started with a simple, brief chat, using short sentences and age-appropriate language and concepts. We told him there are three parts to every mistake: Love, Learning, and Repair.
We have an oft-repeated phrase in our family, “There is no mistake so big that your family would stop loving you.”
We started the whole conversation with a message of love. The kid was so freaked out and alone in his misery, we knew it would be impossible for him to hear anything if his primary goal was making sure he was OK and not kicked out of the family. We asked him to repeat the phrase we always say about mistakes. I invited him to put his hand on his heart and get in touch with his love for himself before we continued talking.
Next, we simply said, “Every person in this whole wide world makes mistakes. What matters is what you learn from them.”
We asked what he learned. We built upon his initial answers, and together came up with the idea to start practicing waiting “one extra second” to evaluate a fun idea before acting on it.
Finally, we asked, “What actions can you take to fix what you did?”
After he concluded that his ‘mistake’ had likely already been cleaned up by the lifeguarding staff, we thought about what feelings the coaches and guards might have that he could take action to repair. He decided to write an apology letter, which he did that night on his own.
What About the Consequences?
It took a bit of thinking together with my husband to decide the appropriate consequence for this action. I appreciate his willingness to talk these things through with me before we address it with our child. We decided that the consequences our son was already living with – namely, being asked to leave his swim meet early, combined with a healthy dose of humiliation – was an appropriate ‘punishment,’ given the ‘crime’. We decided that adding anything else would not deepen the lessons he was already learning. Further criticism or punishments would only make him feel worse, and possibly even resentful of us.
Why Do It This Way?
According to the theory of Individual Psychology authored by Alfred Adler over 100 years ago, all human beings have four fundamental needs. Successfully raising kids in today’s world means preparing them to independently address life’s challenges through experience, learning, and training without depriving them of their basic psychological needs.
20, 30, 40 years ago, a typical response to kid mischief might have been grounding (separation from the family unit), questioning, lecturing, fear, and punishment.
We know now that kids need to feel a sense of belonging. Take away that connection, they’ll only be seeking to reconnect and feel safe, not absorbing any new information. We also know that kids thrive when they feel trusted and capable. They cooperate best when they know they matter – not only when they are well-behaved, but even in times of trouble. And, what gives them the power to grow up and face challenges is encouragement – the belief that they can and will rise above what they may face.*
So, when facing a parenting challenge, remember that you can handle any situation that comes while still maintaining those core needs. In fact, focusing on them can help turn any challenge into an opportunity to grow more resilient. An easy way to remember the core needs is:
The Four Crucial Cs**
- Connect (the need to feel belonging)
- Capable (the need to grow and improve)
- Count (the need to feel significant/like you matter)
- Courage (the need for encouragement/the belief that we can face life’s challenges)
So, Did It Work with My Kid?
I’m happy to say he’s back on the swim team and his behavior has never been better.
And, I’m hopeful that the most important messages got across: He’s growing up in a house where mistakes are opportunities for growth. Love and connection are not conditionally linked to behavior. And, while behavior always has consequences, together we can find a way to get back on track.
If you’re still wondering, as I was, his answer to our initial question “What were you THINKING?”, enjoy reading the apology note he wrote. (Spoiler alert: He wasn’t.)
*Books by Alfred Adler include: The Education of Children (1930), What Life Should Mean to You (1931), and Understanding Human Nature (1937).
** The Four Cs are an adaptation of Adler’s four fundamental psychological needs. They were first proposed in the book Raising Kids Who Can, Bettner, BL. & Lew, A. (1989).