By Angela Noel
June 8, 2017
I called up the stairs. No answer. I walked up the twelve steps and knocked on the door, calling his name. No answer. I tried the door. Locked. I banged on the wood with my knuckles. “Jackson, you open this door right now!” I shouted. No answer. Panic. Blind panic made me rattle the door in its frame shouting, “Open this door!”
A newly minted eight-year-old, Jackson has never really thrown a tantrum, not even as a toddler. He tells the truth; almost to the point where all the adults in his life have had to tell him some version of, “You don’t have to confess every little thing, especially if it happened four years ago when you were in daycare.” He’s the master of please and thank you. And he’s particularly good at picking up stray litter on the ground, or helping others pick up messes made at school. All that said, he’s sometimes an over-confident tween-in-the-making who thinks he rules the world (but in a nice way).
With the school year ending, the teachers warned parents our kids would be squirrelly. New routines and the loss of the old ones make for anxious children. Nevertheless, I looked forward to the last day of school. I planned to surprise Jack with an ice cream treat. I looked forward to reminiscing about the year with him as we ate. But, as I signed him out of his after-school care program, he began his confession.
“Mom, I only broke two rules today. I ran on the equipment and I used hand weapons,” he said.
Most schools, I assume, ban running on the playground equipment and running in hallways. Our school prohibits kids from using their fingers as guns or arms and fists as lightsabers. When I’d first heard of this prohibition I thought it might be overkill (no pun intended), but the more I thought of it, the more I realized even a finger-gun pointed at a person can feel threatening. And there’s no need to encourage even the play-fighting with weapons on school grounds. At home, Jackson can pretend he’s Luke Skywalker or Kylo Ren any day. But, at school where play cannot be as closely monitored, a blanket prohibition works for me. However, Jackson thought, “it was stupid.” Now, we had to have a talk.
I love that Jack tells me what he did wrong. His honesty warms my heart. But he’d been confessing to rule breaking for a few weeks by then, and I’d said again and again, “Stop it. You won’t like the consequences if you keep breaking rules. We chose this school, just like we choose to live in this country. Which means, when we’re here, we follow the rules. If I thought the rules were unreasonable, which I don’t in this case, we’d try a different school. But, that’s not the situation. Follow the rules. Got it?”
“But sometimes, ” he’d protested, “I can’t follow the rules. Like if there’s a bad guy in the building. I should run in the halls then, right?”
“Yes. True. Sometimes, rules don’t apply because something more important is at stake. But that isn’t the case here. You don’t get to decide the rules of the playground and when you follow them and when you don’t. This isn’t life or death. Follow the rules.”
So, on the last day of school, after hearing Jackson’s admission to rule-breaking for the tenth or so time, and realizing my admonitions weren’t working. I told him of my secret plan for an ice cream treat. BUT, because he couldn’t follow the rules, we’d be heading home instead. He didn’t like that. “Isn’t there anything I can do to earn it back?” he asked, tears welling.
When we arrived at home, he headed for his room. I began making dinner and filling my husband in on the day’s events. We heard nothing from upstairs for awhile. Jackson sometimes gives himself a timeout so I assumed he was using the sanctuary of his room to calm down and think things over. When the time came to set the table–his job–I called up to him. And that’s when the chain of events that led to the removal of his door lock and a two-week grounding from TV and video games began.
After I couldn’t get his door open and he didn’t respond for more than thirty-seconds I got scared. Logically, I didn’t think he’d actually been injured–like fallen off the bed and hit his head–or anything like that. But I wasn’t thinking logically. I was thinking: My baby is inside this door and not responding to me when I call him and I can’t get in.
My husband heard the panic in my voice as I called my son’s name and he ran in from outside, where he’d been grilling vegetables and chicken breasts. Seconds later, a frightened child opened his
door, clasping his Cookie Monster to his chest and looking wide-eyed at me. Relief and anger competed for prominence in my brain.
“I want this door knob off right now,” I said, my jaw tight. “And you’re grounded for two weeks-no TV, no video games.” My heart raced, my harsh tone and words reflected my fear.
A Safety Issue
As I waited out his tears, my mind wandered back to my teenage years. Our front door of my childhood home had a deadbolt that required a key on both sides to unlock it. My parents put a key in the lock on the inside of the door and warned my sister and I, “Do NOT take this key out. If there’s a fire or something and we need to get out, we can.” I failed to follow this rule, not once, not twice, but multiple times. I’d heard the threats and ignored them.”It’s a safety issue,” my mom had said. “It’s important. Follow the rule.”
One day, I didn’t have my house keys and I took the front door key out of the lock and happily headed to the mall or somewhere with friends. When I came home my parents pronounced my sentence. “We warned you. You’re grounded. Two weeks. No phone or TV. No going out.”
I don’t remember if I sulked or stormed or just shrugged in response. The punishment did not, in my opinion, fit the crime. Unfair and unreasonable, I thought, stupid even. And yet, I never took the key out of the door again.
At forty-two years of age, I finally get it: It was a safety issue. A locked door without the means of escape or of rescue precludes tragedy. Not a lot of the time, not most of the time, but enough of the time that I’m grateful that I learned my lesson as a teen. If a fire HAD happened and my family couldn’t escape because of my carelessness, I’d never have recovered (if I survived at all). Though the flimsy lock on my son’s door would have succumbed to an adrenaline-fueled shoulder had it come to that, the what-if still looms. And really, it’s got nothing to do with the door or the lock.
The Foundations Of Respect
We teach our child respect by respecting him. Demonstrating how knocking on a closed door rather than barging in, will help him learn how to respect others. If we trust ourselves and each other we don’t need locks or barriers to keep people out or keep others in. Safety and trust must be balanced with self and situational knowledge and awareness. Ensuring he knows how to follow rules put in place to protect him, and those around him, also signals respect.
When he’s a bit older, we’ll talk about civil disobedience and why rule-breaking in the service of a greater good is a choice thoughtful citizens make. We’ll also talk about the complexities of decision making in general. How most things aren’t black and white, and sometimes making decisions on what rule to follow when requires a complex pairing of alternatives without the benefit of being able to see into the future. But not yet. Now, we lay the foundation for following rules and understanding consequences.
I hope it doesn’t take Jackson years to understand why breaking a school rule was bad, but locking his door and refusing to open it when we called was worse. I’ve carried a tiny nugget of resentment at what I’d always thought of as an overreaction in my heart for decades. But now I get it. My parents loved me enough to protect me from myself. To show me, even when I couldn’t fully understand, how to live a respectful, thoughtful, life. I hope I am doing the same. Time will tell.
After the crying stopped and we talked about the incident some more, I shared the story of my teenage transgression with Jackson and my husband. I explained why it mattered and what I now understood about why my parents had done what they did. The next day, I noticed our patio door, the only lock in the house requiring a key on both sides, had a new addition.
A key inserted in the lock, waiting.
Your turn: How have you handled rule-breaking? How do you teach respect and good-decision making?
Note: Respect is a key theme of this post. To that end, I asked Jackson if I could share this story with you. He asked a few questions, but nodded his head. “Yep. That’s okay with me. Thanks for asking,” he said.