You did what?
What in the name of all that is holy made you think that was a good idea?
I say these things a lot to my children.
Why did you do that to your brother?
Put that down!
Of course you can’t!
Often, “no” is the word I use more than any other. I don’t use it because it’s easy. In fact, it’s rather hard. I would much rather say “yes” than “no,” but the fact is I can’t. I know that my wife Stephanie and I have a finite amount of time to impart life lessons to our sons Sam and Ben before they think we’re idiots and they stop listening. Until that time, it’s up to us to instill a sense of right and wrong, of self-awareness, of compassion for others, and of not being assholes to each other. Please God, each will be the only brother they’ll ever get.
We also do our best to practice common sense with them, and to give them good examples of said sense. Don’t stick your hand in a moving ceiling fan, that kind of thing. And while I think my intentions are noble, or at least accurate, sometimes I realize that more often than I’d like to admit, these intentions don’t always match the reality of every given situation.
I’ve always been a big believer that common sense is an all-encompassing endeavor, not just an exercise in personal responsibility. It isn’t always about not running in a live parking lot or starting a twenty-page paper the night before it’s due. It’s also about being a good human being, about treating others with respect, and about making the world a better place for everyone with whom we come in contact.
But last Wednesday, it was a cold dose of reality when I realized that not only did I not live that attitude faithfully as much as I thought, but that the people with whom I was the harshest were the ones I would give my life for instantaneously.
It all started when my friend called me to ask if my boys and I wanted to go sledding. It was the most perfect snow day imaginable. By the time we woke up, there were five inches on the ground and school was cancelled.
Stephanie was unthrilled with the 4:55am snow-day wake-up robo-dial. “Anyone who calls that early better be in the hospital or dead!”
Not ten minutes after the snow stopped around 9am, the temperature spiked and it all started melting rapidly (and would be gone by dusk). So we loaded up the cars and went to an amazing hill here in St. Louis. I’d never been to this particular hill, and by the time we got there, it was a mixture of melting snow and great swaths of cold, wet mud.
Twenty slides later (only 12 in actual snow),our gargantuan mass of mud-caked / frozen fingered humanity concluded that hot chocolate was the only way to end the morning.
We arrived at the coffee shop and ordered for everyone. All the kids sat around a table while my friend and I stood guard, making sure that everyone was still getting along. My friend’s youngest was playing with his cup. I could see the gears turning.
“Don’t do that…you’re going to spill your drink.”
Well of course it’s going to be spilled. He’s jinxed the poor kid…just like I’ve done with my own kids on countless occasions. Will we ever learn?
Guess what happened thirty seconds later?
My friend said the exact same words I’ve used on more than seven occasions: “What did I tell you?”
I went to the counter and grabbed some napkins, running back to the table. Yet before I put a single one down to blot up the liquid, I looked at this now-sobbing child’s face. It was a mixture of tears, snot, and despair.
And then I thought about the times in my life when I had sobbed like that. They were moments like a first love’s last kiss, the death of a relative, or any viewing of What Dreams May Come. They were nothing so benign as a cup of spilled cocoa.
I’d seen the face before. On Sam, and more recently, Ben. What makes it worse is that when my own kids cried like this, it wasn’t just because they had done something wrong; they also told me that they were so sorry for disappointing me.
How’s that for a metaphoric kick in the ball?
So I knelt down next to my friend’s child, and while helping to sop up the mess I said, “Kiddo, you have nothing to worry about. I do this all the time. And I will do it all the time for the rest of my life. It’s just a spilled drink.”
And as I stood up, I wondered why I hadn’t been so compassionate with my own children, and how my normal actions at home were the antithesis of who I wanted to be. And as that junk punch happened, it got worse as I thought about how I had made things even harder for my boys when I made my own mistakes, especially in front of them.
No one is more difficult on me than me when it comes to messing something up. Whenever I goof, I come up with new and inventive ways to tear myself down. God forbid I spill something; it’s an almost unnatural self-flagellation.
How could I be so stupid? is just the tip of the iceberg.
With that in mind, how does acting that way look to the sponges living in your house that take their cues on how to live from you, how to treat others from you, and how to treat themselves from you?
All of the mistakes I had made came crashing down on me, but in a departure from my old reality, I didn’t let them get me down, because I recognized that thanks to a small spilled cup of hot chocolate, I learned one of the most important lessons of my life.
I walked out of there a different man than when I walked in. I am now determined to try every day for the rest of my life to be a better example for my boys on what is really important in life: to show compassion for someone living in sadness (even temporarily), to pick someone up when they fall, to not stick your hand in a moving ceiling fan, and to not sweat the small things in life that can way too easily bring is down.
Especially something so innocuous as a spilled cup of cocoa.
Now a spilled glass of wine on the other hand…