Christian Piatt wishes he could forgive himself for his parenting mistakes as easily as his son does.
(From my memoir, PregMANcy: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date, on faith, fatherhood and family)
Mattias: “Dad, I forgive you.”
Me: “But I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Mattias: “That’s okay. I forgive you anyway.”
-Mattias, 5 years, 1 month
Perhaps the biggest responsibility of a parent is to impart a world-view to your kids that reflects you values, so that once your kids are out making their own decisions, at least they have the benefit of your wisdom to call on if they choose to. It turns out, though, that sometimes we’re our own worst parental enemies.
Take yesterday, for example, when I realized I’m a big, gigantic jerk of a dad.
I’ve still been recuperating from the emotional fallout of the past week’s events, and as such, I haven’t felt much like being around lots of people. So when Amy’s family gathered for lunch in Pueblo, I passed. I did have lots of work to do, but the main impetus for me was that I was craving isolation, which is something entirely foreign to the Pumphrey clan.
My son, on the other hand, has never known a moment in his life when he didn’t want to be at the center of activity. So Amy took him to the lunch, and he proceeded to charm the crap out of everyone. I’m glad to see how socially adept he is, because one of my concerns in having kids to begin with was that they might inherit my antisocial gene. I think there’s no concern about that with Mattias in the least.
They put him between Jed and Joe, two of his favorite people, so he was in uncle heaven. I guess, at one point, he leaned over to his uncle Joe and announced, unsolicited, that he adored him, to which Joe responded by giving him five bucks.
Now, I love that Mattias is so unabashedly affectionate with people, but I do hope he doesn’t equate kindness with compensation. That could get a little weird, walking up to strangers and relatives with a kind word on his tongue and hand eagerly extended. I don’t see that kind of potential in him, though, so I guess a little spoiling form his family can’t hurt much.
As he tends to do, he was parading the cash around to anyone who would acknowledge it, including to me, as if it was the only five-spot ever minted. The problem is that, about half the time, he loses the money before it makes it into his bank. So I offered to carry it for him while we were out running some errands later on. He asked for it back after a while, and I explained that if he lost it, there were no refunds. I figured, though, that even losing the money was a lesson worth learning.
Sure enough, that evening at dinner, he dug into his pocket for his cash and found nothing. “Dad,” he said, looking distressed, “I need my money back.”
“I already gave it to you, buddy,” I said, bracing for the inevitable fit to follow.
“No,” he said, raising both the pitch and volume of his voice, “you have it.”
“Remember how we talked about this?” I sat down with him, checking his pockets. “This is why I didn’t want you to carry your own money. Once it’s gone, it’s gone, dude.”
“I did NOT lose it!” he was pretty worked up at this point. “You had it, and YOU lost it!” His eyes got a little bit teary, though you could tell he was still trying to hold it together.
“Hey, don’t blame me for losing your money,” I said, trying to balance his dis-tress with an even tone of voice. “Sometimes we lose stuff. It’s no fun, but that’s how we learn to be more careful.”
“No,” he stood up, shifting from plaintively desperate to confrontational, “YOU had it, YOU lost it, and I want it back!”
“All right,” I rubbed my eyes, trying not to get hooked by his tirade, “that’s enough. Go take a time out and think about how you’re talking to daddy.” He stomped over toward his Naughty Step, all the while grumbling audibly about my culpability and something about his displeasure for my stinkiness. I let it slide, as he was already being punished, but I let him know in no uncertain terms that, if he escalated his name-calling, he’d be spending some time in the gulag, also known as the car bed in his room.
After a few minutes, he got the frustration out of his system and I let him out of the penalty box. As I try to do after his punishment, I gave him a hug and tried to talk him through why he got in trouble, and how he might avoid it the next time. He played along, if for no other reason than to get me to shut up so he could go back to watching the animated Christmas special that was on TV.
The best thing I’ve observed about folks like my wife and Mattias, who seems to wear their emotions out there for all to see, is that they get over stuff pretty quickly. After a couple of commercial breaks, Mattias hopped off the couch and came over to my chair. “Dad,” he said, giving me a squeeze, “I love you, and I forgive you.”
“Thanks buddy,” I said, hugging him back, “but do you know what it means to forgive someone?”
“Kind of,” he said, staring at me with his big, blue saucer eyes. It’s a damn good thing this kid is so stinking cute; it may well add to his lifespan.
“It means you’re not staying upset at someone for something they did wrong.”
“Okay,” he said, giving me another hug, “then I forgive you.”
“But I didn’t do anything wrong,” I said, careful not to bring up the money specifically, for fear of starting another emotional conflagration I’d just as soon avoid.
“I forgive you anyway,” he smiled, and went back to his TV show.
Fair enough. Who am I, after all, to dissuade him from offering peace in his own way, even if it’s a little bit misdirected?
A couple hours later, as I was getting ready for bed, I emptied my pockets onto the bathroom counter, and tucked up in the corner of my right-hand pocket was a crumpled up five-dollar bill. I stared at the object in utter shame.
“What’s the matter,” Amy asked. I held up the bill. “You’re kidding,” was all she said.
“I’m such a knob,” I said, setting his money down.
“So, what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to apologize to him of course.”
“Poor guy,” she frowned. “five-year-olds just have no leverage to argue.”
“All right,” I said. “Thanks, but I already feel like enough of an asshole.”
“You should ask him what you can do to make it right.”
“Yeah,” I said, “good idea to basically open the door to a kid to let him exploit the moment.”
“Well, that’s what we teach him to say.”
“No,” I corrected her, “that’s what you teach him to say. I think an apology and admitting you’re wrong is good enough. I hate apologizing as it is.”
“Really? I didn’t know that about you.”
“In the Piatt clan,” I said, “the typical M.O. was just to ignore the transgression for a while until you could just pretend like it never happened.”
“Nice,” she shook her head.
“Hey, I didn’t say I was going to do it, but I’m sure as hell not going to go wake him up to apologize.” He was still asleep when I left for work the next morning, so I got to carry it around a little longer, which is awesome for a guy already feeling off-center about my own parental issues. I guess it’s a healthy lesson in humility for me, and at the same time, it was a real eye-opener in retrospect to realize he was forgiving me, even though he knew I had his money the whole time, and for all he knew, I had lost it, leaving him with no recourse.
Talk about mixed emotions. I’m both proud to be his dad, and at the same time, feeling like a total schmuck for putting him through all of that. Amy’s right; this one probably is going to cost me a little.
Being the little five-year-old saint that he is, I could hardly finish apologizing be-fore he was hugging and forgiving me. “It’s okay dad, I forgive you, again. I forgive you every time, and plus, even though it’s not Valentine’s Day, you can be my Valentine every day.”
“That’s very sweet,” I said, both grateful for his mercy, and even more embarrassed about my faux pas. “Thanks buddy.”
“But dad,” he said, pulling back and looking me in the eye, “I will remember this, and you will too. Every Christmas eve, until you die, you will remember this five dollar bill.”
Part of good parenting, from what I can tell anyway, is modeling how to deal well with flaws. Along the way in my childhood, I got the mistaken impression that being a good parent meant presenting an aura of flawlessness, which of course can’t be sustained forever. I remember the grave disappointment I experienced when I realized my parents not only weren’t right all of the time, but that they actually were just as messed up as everybody else. It’s a harsh realization, much like learning the truth about Santa and other mythologies upon which we hang our youthful hopes, and although I’m not set on a mission to overwhelm my kids with premature disillusionment, I also don’t want them to expect a world that can’t deliver. Part of my job, then, is to admit when I’m a screw-up.
The best news is that, at his age and given his naturally loving disposition, he’s already inclined to forgiveness, even when I’m not ready to accept it. I can only hope to learn from such grace, compassion and I guess you could call it wisdom. At least for today, the teacher has become the student. Despite appearances, Mattias is actually the better person in many ways and I have a hell of a lot to learn. I could take this as a major blow to my own ego, but I prefer to see it as a gift to get to learn from someone so relatively new to the human race.
Take wisdom wherever you can get it, I say. That includes kids who forgive you, even before you know you need it.