As I sat on the sofa, holding my sobbing son, I tried to figure out what in the world was going on. He was shaking, and telling me he was scared. My nine-year-old boy was hysterical. The boy who has many fears, but who has never once told me that he was afraid of anything. Something was terribly, terribly wrong.
At least I think it was wrong. But I’m not sure, even now, several hours later.
It started in the park, when I learned that during a playdate this weekend, Zach had gone into the bedroom of a friend’s sister. The friend, Ezra, and Zach took the sister’s special locked box and brought it to the friend’s room, where Zach broke into it with a pair of scissors, thus breaking the lock. The boys hid the box and hoped that would be the end of it.
When I found out, I dragged Zach out of the park and lectured him all the home. Lecturing isn’t the right word, really. But neither is yelling. What is the verb for telling your kid that you are ashamed of him, that you can no longer trust him, and that you are really, really mad? Ah, yes, it’s shame.
When he got in the house, I recounted the whole sordid affair to his father, and we meted out his punishment: no playing with friends until October, writing an apology letter to the girl, paying to replace her box, and going to bed right after dinner. Then I stormed up the stairs, telling him I was sad that he cared more about staying out of trouble than doing the right thing.
While I was upstairs, God urged me to go tell him I loved him. I came down and said, “I’m ashamed of what you did. I’m really, really angry. But I want you to know that I love you.”
At which point he began to weep. When I went to pick him up, he cried harder. When I sat down with him on the sofa, his body went limp except for the part that was heaving up and down as he cried. And so it went, for forty-five minutes.
In the middle somewhere, he moaned, “I’m in shock.”
“What does that mean?” I asked. ”Does that mean you are surprised?”
“Are you surprised that you did something so wrong? Or that you got caught? Or are you surprised that Mommy got so angry at you?”
“I’m just. In. Shock. About everything.” Which I pieced together through his convulsing tears.
I should stop here to say that Zach does not do this. His brother has been known to have fits of anger, to cry for hours about a dead pet, or to talk at length about his feelings. But not Zach. Zach’s emotions are normally a tightly sealed secret. I was as shocked as Zach at the way things were unfolding.
A few minutes later, he explained, I think, what he meant by shocked. “I’m scared.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“Are you scared that we won’t love you if you make a mistake.”
He looked up for a second to suggest I’m crazy and said, “No. Of course not.”
“Are you afraid because you want to be a good boy and you try so hard but you keep making mistakes?”
At which he cried harder, and snorted and gasped more dramatically.
“Baby,” I offered as I continued to hold him tight and rub his back, “that’s what we do. We screw up. No matter how much we don’t want to, we make mistakes. It’s hard growing up. And it’s hard being a grown up. We keep making mistakes.
“That’s why Jesus died for us, sweetie. He died so that we don’t have to feel this feeling that you are feeling right now. You can just say sorry, ask God to help you fix it if it can be fixed, and let it go, knowing that you are deeply, deeply loved.”
He kept crying. I kept holding, and praying, and imploring Jeff with my eyes to do something to help my baby feel better.
Unless, of course, what he was feeling was normal and healthy.
I’m still not sure what to make of it all. Maybe it was just his first time experiencing the depths of remorse and sadness at his own inability to be perfect. Maybe he was, despite his assurance otherwise, terrified by how angry I was at him. Whatever it was, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that I shamed my kid. It feels horrible. I didn’t tell him that he did something bad. I implied, and meant to, that his character was weak. Is that ever okay? Is it ever okay to tell your kid through gritted teeth that you fear he is going to grow up to be a liar? I don’t think so, because it all felt so manipulative. But I’m not sure. And I’m not sure I could put an end to it even if I decided it was wrong.
I don’t have a clever way to end this post. I’m just left with a lot of questions. And sadness. And fears of my own.
I’ve been trying to remind myself, though, that Jesus died for me too. I’m not gonna be a perfect parent. I’m going to screw up. Sometimes badly. All I can do is say sorry, ask God to help me fix it if it can be fixed, and let it go, knowing that I am deeply, deeply loved.
To read another post about our ongoing battle with shame, CLICK HERE.