Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Perspective From The Other Side

I read a post from Niffer about a couple of experiences that she’d had with other people and her child. I wanted to post this as a comment on her blog, but after realizing how long it got, I decided to make it a blog post. The rest of this will be from the perspective of me writing to Niffer.

Hi Niffer,

I read your 2nd experience and felt the need to give the perspective of a parent whose child misbehaves. Our 2nd child is an interesting kid. He’s very different than our 1st child. #1 is a naturally compliant child. He is aware of other people’s feelings and responds to them. Which makes parenting him really easy (for now at least). #2, on the other hand, has a tendency to be incredibly self-reliant. He tends to be an experiential learner. Meaning that he doesn’t tend to believe things that are told to him. He tends to want to find out from direct experience whether or not something is true. How someone feels about it doesn’t really matter that much to him.

Both of these traits are strengths, that I think God has given them to be used for a purpose. Unfortunately, in the wrong situations, they can be weaknesses. For example, #1 is very good at relating to other people. He easily understands their feelings and responds to them. This is a trait that allows him to make friends very easily. But he’s also very bad at standing up for himself. He can be convinced by others to do things he shouldn’t. He’s simply responding to other people’s feelings. In contrast, #2 is much more able to stand up for himself. No one is going to convince him to do something that he doesn’t want to do. But his need to experience something to believe it means that he struggles with making and keeping friends. Friends expect you to trust them, and he tends to be confrontational. He often reacts strongly when he thinks he’s been wronged. And he doesn’t need anyone else to help him deal with it. He’ll handle it himself. Forcefully. Even violently.

As a result, we are sometimes confronted by other parents who are complaining that son #2 hit their child. The last time it happened, we were at an indoor playland called “Monkey Joes”. We were heading to the car to eat the lunch we’d brought, when a woman, who was clearly angry, confronted us about our 2nd son. She told us how he’d hit her daughter and caused a cut on her face. I said, “Yeah that sounds like something he might do. I’m so sorry. I’ll talk with him.”

Now if it had stopped there, I probably wouldn’t remember the details of the encounter. I would have talked to my son, tried to figure out what was going on, and hoped that he’d absorbed 10% of what I’d said. But it didn’t stop there. She went on, saying that just talking to him wasn’t good enough. And I asked her what she thought I should do? She suggested that he be taken home for the rest of the day, and be punished. At which point, I told her that I hadn’t seen what happened. That I was simply trusting her, and I asked her if she’d seen what happened. She had not. But the cut on her daughter’s face was clear that something had happened. I said, “OK, that’s true. But the cut doesn’t tell us exactly what happened, and not having seen the incident, and not having had a chance to talk to my son about it, I need to find out his perspective before I punish him. Besides that I have 5 other kids with me and they want to stay.” (My 4 kids had 2 friends with them.) At which point, she grunted, and said, “Well, then just keep him away from my daughter!” while pointing her finger in my face and turning and walking away.

Having been through this before, I assumed that the story she told was correct. That #2 had initiated the fight. Of course, #2 claimed innocence. And surprisingly, my first child (who’s 12) and his friend (who’s also 12) immediately corroborated #2’s story. Apparently, this girl and her friends know my son from school. And they frequently chase him around the playground. And they also frequently get him into trouble by pestering him until he responds and defends himself. So he’s accustomed to seeing this particular posse of girls and running from them as quickly as possible.

My first son – who is able to sense that I’m not kidding around – is typically very honest. He’s earned his parents trust. He & his friend confirmed that this group of girls had been chasing my son for most of the time we’d been there. And when the incident occurred, they were trying to pull him off of a slide, and they succeeded. And in the process of falling, my 2nd son fell on the girl who claimed he’d punched her. And that’s what caused the cut. She initiated it entirely, and as his her habit, she tried to blame it on my son.

Of course, upon hearing this, I was mad. But I calmed myself and found the woman. In as non-accusatory a manner as I could, I told her what had happened and what was confirmed by my oldest son and his friend. At the end I said, “I don’t know exactly what happened – I wasn’t there. And I will respect your request to keep my son away from your daughter, but I thought you should know that this is happening.” By this time, she had calmed down from her initial anger at my son, and she was able to hear me. Despite that, I spent the rest of the day trying to assist my son in staying away from this posse of girls who were relentless in pestering him.

What is my point? I don’t know. When you told experience #2, I immediately thought of this event. And I remembered being the parent of the kid who’d misbehaved. Maybe my point is that there’s always another perspective. And in my case it was wrong for me to assume that my son had misbehaved. But it was also wrong for this woman to approach me with such accusation.

I also know that as a parent, when I feel like I’m defending my child, I get angry too quickly. I jump in and attack back at whatever I perceive is attacking my child. In this particular case, I think I handled it better than many previous examples, where I had immediately raised defenses and went into attacking the accuser – who was clearly in the wrong. I think the fact that all those experiences ended up badly has taught me that

I can’t just go attacking someone whom I perceive as threatening my child. I have to listen first. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to control my own desire to defend my child and my desire to know the truth of what happened. So maybe my point is to caution you to go into a confrontation with another parent with humility.

Re: the boy who called your daughter something horribly insulting, you may be right that he’d heard it from his father. But maybe he heard it from older siblings. Or maybe from friends of his older siblings. Maybe his parents have confronted him on it so much, that he’s figured out how to get away with it when they’re not around, but not figured out how to get away with it when other parents are around.

Maybe I’m feeling defensive for those other parents, because I’m so frequently on the side of having my son be the one who wronged someone else’s child. And to the parents who confront me on it, I promise you, I’m *more* frustrated by it than you are. You’ve had this one experience with my child, and when you go home, it’s done for you. I’ve had this experience many times and this just reminds me that we have more work to do. Maybe those other parents would have wanted to say that. Maybe they wouldn’t have known how, and would have reacted badly as they perceived someone attacking their son.

Obviously, I don’t know. But I’m certain that when it comes to parents interacting with other parents over conflict between their children, the only possible way it will work is if both sides approach things with humility. If I’m not willing to be the one who approaches with humility, then there’s no chance that the interaction will go well.