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The Unforced Error

As with politics or tennis, parenting, too, comes with its share of unforced errors. It’s bad enough when Simon hits a rough patch and I think I err in handling it. I might tell myself that I could have or should have tried a different tactic or, if I’m really at the end of my rope, berate myself for aggravating an already difficult situation. But I usually manage to reserve at least a little sympathy for myself: controlling an angry or hysterical kid is hard, and I don’t always have the right answer for tough spots or the physical or mental reserves to rise above the occasion.

So bad and/or ineffective parenting happens. I can live with that knowledge. But unforced errors? Times when everything is going swell until Mommy opens her mouth without thinking and says something to upset Simon. Those are maddening. And I’m afraid tonight a committed a doozy of one.

Picture this. Simon has had a fun day at camp, taken a nice afternoon nap, had a good dinner and play-date with a friend, and stayed up past his bedtime to watch summer’s first fireflies in our lawn. Perfect, right? Then we go upstairs to put on pajamas. What should have been a really sweet conversation ensues:

“Mommy, how am I going to be 5?

“In just four months, Simon. But let’s not rush it, OK? Cause can I tell you a secret? Four and a half has been the most fun we’ve ever had together. Let’s stay here as long as we can.

“Will we have fun together when I’m 5?

“Well sure we will! It’s just that 4 ½ has been awesome, and I don’t want to hurry it away.

“What about when I’m 19? Will we have fun together then?

“Um, I hope so. But Simon, you might not be living with us when you are 19. You’ll probably be off at college.”

The wide eyes were the first sign that Mommy had said something terribly, terribly wrong, followed by the quivering chin, bitten lip, wrinkled nose, and stream of tears that followed. Silly, silly Mommy. What were you thinking? The answer is that I was picturing myself at 19, feeling very grown up and hungry for a taste of the cosseted independence that college provides. No curfew yet also no bills. What could be better?

Poor Simon has no understanding of college or growing up. He pictures himself as he thinks and feels now, only taller, at 19. So from his perspective, I just told him that at some point in the distant but imaginable future I was going to toss him out when he doesn’t remember his phone number, can’t dress himself without help, and otherwise relies on his mom and dad to take care of his most basic needs. In other words, I just told a 4-year-old about my plans to abandon him.


So, the next 5-10 minutes consisted of a contrite Mommy (i.e. Me) attempting to calm a scared and hurt child. Since I firmly believe in (mostly) not lying to Simon about anything, I tried to remedy the situation not by pack-pedaling about college, but about framing the discussion in a way that he’d feel comfortable about.

“Simon, let me tell you something. When I was 19, I wanted to go away to college. So I moved away from home and lived in a place called a dorm with lots and lots of friends. When it was time for school I went to classrooms, and when I was hungry I went to a cafeteria. I didn’t live at home, but people still took care of me, and I came back home for holidays and vacations. I loved it. Some other people don’t do that. They live at home when they go to college. You can do that, too, if you want. You will always have a room in this house, and you can live here for as long as you want me and Daddy to keep you company and for as long as you need us to take care of you. I promise.”

He nodded and calmed down, fears of being tossed into the mean streets of Louisville temporarily abated. And I promised to be more mindful of the fact that we’re still Simon’s entire world and that he has already expressed concern about this thing called adulthood*. Mommy needs to think before she talks.

*Much like my brother Steve asked my mom, Simon has on previous occasions asked me how he will know which house to buy, what job to do, or whom to marry when he is a grown-up. He understands just enough about adult responsibilities to be scared of them.

2 Responses to “The Unforced Error”

  1. goldsteinrita says:

    Most grown-ups are still afraid of them. An understandable error that all parents have done at one time or another, even if their children did not let them know that they scared the hell out of them.

  2. Amanda says:

    Hey, don’t beat yourself up. It’s not like you were deliberately mean or wanted to scare Simon. At one time or another we all say something we think is innocuous and it isn’t–and not only to kids. It’s hard to know what is going to bother someone all the time, every time you open your mouth. You do the best you can.

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