A friend of mine told me a school story the other day. It’s one I’ve heard before from many friends over many years.
The mother of one of her daughter’s friends called to discuss the misbehavior of both of their children in class the other day. My friend had been out of town so she hadn’t yet heard the details from her daughter, but she was mortified. Hadn’t she raised her not to talk back to her teachers? What had she done wrong? How could she ever show her face in that classroom again?
As soon as she saw her daughter the tirade began. “I can’t believe how you behaved. You should be ashamed of yourself. I warned you about the consequences of chutzpah.”
“But mommy,” said her daughter tearfully, “don’t you want to hear my side of the story?”
There is an all-too-common tendency to believe the words of others against those of our children. I’m not sure why we do this. Are we too embarrassed in the moment to see clearly? Are we taking it too personally, more focused on the implied criticism of our parenting techniques than on our children’s welfare? Do we automatically give more credence to someone in a position of authority? Are we too focused on not rocking the boat with our friend?
Whatever the reason, our children then feel betrayed. Their safe and secure harbor is no longer that. There is nowhere to turn.
What should we do?
1. If we react without listening, we need to begin by apologizing. “I’m really sorry; I should have listened to you first. Tell me what happened.”
2. Try, if at all possible, to get the facts straight or at least a firmer grip on the facts. Another friend described this scenario to me: After a play date she received a phone call. She hung up and immediately launched an attack on her 10 year-old daughter. “Sara’s mother called to say that when her daughter came over to play with you, you wouldn’t share your toys, you didn’t offer her anything to eat and you just sat in the corner and played by yourself. I was shocked to hear that. Didn’t we speak many times about how to treat guests? Don’t you understand about sharing?” Her daughter started sobbing. When she calmed down she said, “That’s not what happened at all. I offered her some toys and she wasn’t interested. I brought out cookies and some juice and she said she wasn’t hungry. Everything I suggested she just shrugged her shoulders and said no. So I finally gave up and just started playing by myself.”
3. Support your child and at the same time encourage her to take the high road. A mother once called me (I find I’ve gotten at least one call per daughter, usually around 5th grade!) to say that a bunch of girls were picking on her daughter in school and my daughter was a part of the group. I was very surprised – not because my kids are angels but because it seemed uncharacteristic for this particular child – but I promised to speak to her. As I gently raised the issue, my daughter reassured me that she was not a part of this group. “I believe you,” I said, “but since this other girl seems to think you are, could you just apologize anyway? You won’t lose anything and you’ll make her feel better.”
There are at least two sides to every story. Sometimes our children really do make mistakes (yes it’s true). We need to give them a chance to own up to it themselves or explain. And whatever their story, we need to listen with love and encouragement. With your arm around their shoulder – if they’ll let you.
You may discover they really did act incorrectly. They may really need to apologize. They may really need consequences.
But it will be a very different dialogue if your main concern is How can I help my child grow through this experience and continue to feel loved? versus What will the neighbors think? or How could this happen to me?
Children can never be hurt by too much love.