Baggage - FamilyEducation

Baggage

April 21,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

L. had to learn a hard lesson this past weekend: it had to do with trust and friendship, and it was a lesson I think he is too young to learn. I was lucky that I didn't have to learn such lessons until college, but when my trust in two friends was betrayed, on two separate occasions, I remember feeling devastated, disappointed, and alone. Because the parties involved were adults, it was more difficult for me to reconcile what had happened. When the friend is an eight-year old child, though, this is a very different matter. Kids often act on impulse, for many reasons, and part of the process of nurturing a conscience in young people, and teaching them right from wrong, is allowing them to learn from their mistakes without making them feel like terrible people for making them. Still, when it happens to your kid, you feel angry, and hurt, and helpless. For my L. the incident involved a play date on Friday, and the theft from L.'s beloved metal safe (a small bank designed to look like a combination safe) of all his carefully stashed money he's been saving for some time now. On Friday night when L. discovered the money was missing, Scott and I faced a parenting challenge we didn't think we'd have to face this soon: how to help L. understand that while what his friend did was wrong, his friend was not a bad person at heart; that we all make mistakes for many complicated and sometimes confusing reasons. The important thing was getting past the initial feelings of betrayal and helping L. understand that sometimes good people make wrong choices. Easy, right? But we had several hurdles to cross that night. The first was making absolutely certain the money had been taken before calling the child's house because, believe me, THAT'S not a conversation you really want to have. Before we could even discuss what to say on the telephone, Scott was downstairs and on the phone in a flash. Ever-patient and ever-diplomatic, he handled it perfectly, and as it turned out our suspicions were verified pretty quickly (a full confession will do that). We made arrangements over the phone for the return of the money, and then we had to face hurdle #2: sitting down and talking with L. about what he would do when he saw his friend again. I tried to put myself into L.'s shoes. Would he understand the complicated motives we suspected for the theft? Would those motives even matter? Would it be best to leave aside loftier conversations and to stick with a step-by-step plan for the future--how would he treat his friend when he saw him next? What would he say to him? How could he work past his own anger? Did he understand his anger? Life is hard. I ache for L. so often, long for him to find a good friend or two who will accept and love him for the bright, funny, and interesting person he is; who will champion for him, and value him. Yet even as I think about those things I try hard not to place too much weight on what this betrayal might do to L.'s own trust and faith in the possibilities of friendship. It was a long road back for me from that dark place where I felt betrayed, so many years ago, by two friends I thought I could trust. And while I can't say I've held a grudge for almost twenty years, I still hurt over it, and I've never been able to fully trust in my female friendships the same way since then. I've noticed that as a parent I tend to over-think things sometimes; to foist my own cumbersome baggage onto my kids from time to time, and project my own feelings onto them. Would L. feel as badly as I had when my friends betrayed my trust? Would it be a long road for him, one too daunting for someone only eight to set foot upon? My mind was in turmoil that night as I snuggled in bed with L., waiting for him to wind down, like a tired clock. My worries circled around each other, each one vying for top spot in my mind and heart. Then, just as I thought L. was dropping off to sleep, he stirred and tapped me on my arm. "You know, Mama," he said, and stopped suddenly. I waited, wondering what pronouncement he would make. I held my breath--would it be positive? Negative? Heart-breaking? What could I say? "You know, Mama," he continued, a faint note of awe creeping into his voice. "I never EVER thought in my whole life I'd have a safe-cracker for a friend." And somehow, I think he's going to be okay with all this, I really do.