Do you remember when your sleep-deprived eyes looked into your newborn’s wide awake-at the unGodliest of hours-ones? And you thought, Perfect. You’re absolutely perfect.
Better yet, do you remember before you had kids? And you looked at other moms with their children and thought, My kids are going to be way, WAY more perfect than that.
And then, remember actually having kids? And realizing that while “good” is innate, perfect is not. And mistakes happen. Often.
There’s spilled milk mistakes. Broken toy mistakes. Hurt feelings mistakes. Bad word mistakes. Up too late mistakes. And too much sugar mistakes. The list is endless. Just this past weekend Jason and I overheard this “mistake:”
But I didn’t do anything!
Sigh. We all make mistakes. You, me, that mom over there. And so do our kids. We know how it feels to be mistake-full and we love our kids to pieces, so we build them up and tell them how good, wonderful and great they are. We brush off mistakes as something natural, normal and an everyday occurrence. But every once in awhile, we also have to make our children aware of their mistakes and how they’ve affected another’s heart.
And that’s the part of parenting that keeps me awake at night. The singing, the play doh, the occasional tantrum. Those I can handle. But making sure that my kids turn end up nice, kind, good people? That’s really and truly…hard. Shocking, I know.
There’s a variety of puzzle pieces that create a beautiful heart and a beautiful person. Honesty, compassion, love. In my mind, kindness is a must-have. And hand-in-hand with kindness? The part that’s not negotiable but not exactly crystal clear in the how-to-teach department? Is empathy. Empathy comes into play because sometimes “mistakes” are the scrapes and bruises that happen to someone else because of us. Over a toy, a difference, a word.
Jason and I have talked (and talked and talked) about accountability and empathy. We’ve shown tear-streaked faces and explained and modeled how much we value kindness. Sometimes we see the direct results of these little moments and our eyes tear up with joy. And other times, like the other morning when we heard that unmistakable Whap, our eyes tear up with a different emotion. Both being former teachers, we know that sometimes a fresh voice packs the most powerful punch and sends the message in a more poignant way.
So when we received the PJ Library Book The Hardest Word by Jacqueline Jules in the mail, I was thrilled. I adore the Ziz for his gorgeous feathers. For his sweeping gestures. And for his casual convos with God at his special place, Mount Sinai. Obviously.
But in this book, where the Ziz accidentally ruins the children’s garden and it cannot be fixed. Where the Ziz instantly feels badly for the children. Where the hardest word to say is “sorry.” This book is purely a teachable moment in the making. The Ziz arrives to apologize for the garden damage with his own garden’s bounty to share with the children. The restitution, the fixing, is so naturally embedded in the apology. It’s not called out, spelled out, or anything else-out. It’s just the way it is.
And that’s what I love. Empathy, accountability and restitution. The stuff that goosebumps are made of.
Some children naturally tune-in to other people’s feelings. Kayli is like that. Sensitive and intuitive, she sometimes takes on other people’s pain and angst. Almost to the point that we worry about her sweet heart breaking for someone else’s sake. At the same time, she hates (hates!) being wrong and sometimes denies any and all wrong-doing. Empathy without accountability.
Chloe, also extremely sensitive and loving, doesn’t mind owning up to her mistakes. This is partly because she doesn’t naturally see how she affects other people. Sometimes in the best of ways. Sharing a toy. Including someone in play. Handing a freshly-picked dandelion to a friend. Pointing out and reveling in those instances is easy. They’re the big, squeezy hugs-I am so very proud of you-moments that we all imagined and looked forward to from the second our newborn’s tiny little fingers grasped our own, suddenly gargantuan, more weathered hands.
But in the blink of an eye, Chloe can also turn a That’s my girl! moment into a cringe-worthy one. Grabbing a toy. Pushing. Excluding. Ignoring. All of these “things” that to be perfectly honest with you, I just assumed my children would never do. And she needs to see the affects of these choices, too. Empathy with accountability.
Teaching empathy is tricky because we never want to make our kids feel uncomfortable or unhappy, embarrassed or wrong. But we need to literally feel those feelings in order to put ourselves in another’s shoes. I remember reading that the best anecdote to tantrum-throwing children is to have a tantrum of your very own. I have never had the guts to throw myself on the floor kicking-and-screaming-style just to show my kids what that moment feels (and sounds) like from everyone else’s point of view. But I’ve thought about it. There’s a picture-in-your-mind that I wouldn’t mind erasing!
In The Hardest Word, the Ziz feels empathy for the children from the get-go. He owns up to his mistake, soul searches with a little help from God (You remember, at Mount Sinai) and then he apologizes and fixes everything in the happily ever after part of the story. In other words, the Ziz is a spot-on example.
I do realize that asking my children to compare and model their behavior after a loud, over-the-top, big-gesturing, quick-moving, mistake-making, magical bird has the potential to ahem- backfire on me. But then again, many parenting tricks-of-the-trade do. This one just happens to include a fabulous bird. And who (at least in the under under-eight set) wouldn’t be inspired by that?
**This article was originally written for the PJ Library August 2010 e-newsletter. The PJ Library® program supports families in their Jewish journey by sending Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis to children from age six months to five, six, seven or eight years depending on the community. Created by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, The PJ Library is funded nationally in partnership with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, local philanthropists, and Jewish organizations.