A Parenting Dilemma: Trust, Safety, and Respect

A young boy finishes a fun run

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 us, 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 each enjoyed a sweet treat. 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, 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.

A cute kid with sunglasses looking cool
Jackson looking very cool at age five.

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.

“No.”

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

A no-lock door
He knew locking the door was a no-no. Removing the lock sent a message he needed to hear.

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.

Crying ensued.

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.

A key in a door
A new addition to our house, a key waiting to be turned.

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.

Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

32 thoughts on “A Parenting Dilemma: Trust, Safety, and Respect”

  1. This was written beautifully, a strong message is carried in your post, it felt authentic and i am embarrassed to say made my cheeks wet without realising. I dealt with a situation with my child badly and I would in hindsight do it different today. But you can’t take back mistakes once you made them only learn from them unfortunately for some too late. My son has grown and still as a man remembers the anger in me. I didn’t let him go to a much older boys youthclub ten miles from our home. So he ran away, seven hours of hell later the police found him, cocky and brash…I slapped his face in fear and disgust. I have apologised it isn’t the way I usually worked or something I have ever done since. But twenty two years on I weep for a chance to rub it out… but You can’t. He says I was the only person ever to scare and hurt him… in his life, he is 38 now and a father himself.

    1. Hi Ellen. Thank you for sharing your story. I think “hell” is the perfect way to describe those hours when your son was missing. I’m certain I’d feel the same. Fear operates on us in ways I don’t pretend to fully understand.
      You, too, are a learning, growing being. If any of us are judged by our most vulnerable moments, we’re all in trouble. And I can’t think of a more vulnerable moment then the one you and your son faced. My own mother slapped me once, when I was eighteen and acting exactly as I imagine your son was–cocky and brash. I didn’t speak to her for days. But later (much later) I realized I was wrong. She, a kind, loving, learning soul, had reached a brink with me. Her slap wasn’t a pattern, it was a wake up call to us both.
      The situation isn’t the same, obviously. But I tell you the story because as an adult, I understand how reasonable people are still learning people. We cannot always control what happens to us, or even what we do in a moment where fear or other extreme emotions flood our brains, but we can control what we do with the knowledge and experience we gained. My whole heart thanks you for sharing this story, and wishes you peace in the knowledge that you- as my son would say- fit the definition of a great mom. “Someone who gives a kid what they need, some of what they want, and all the love they have to give.”

  2. Great post. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs to do, but one of the most rewarding. I think as parents we’ll always have things we wish we’d done differently, but this situation, I think you handled well. I love how much you communicate with your son. Kudos to you! You’re doing a great job.

    1. Thanks, Lisa! Parenting is definitely not easy. But it’s a great opportunity to learn as we go. My guiding principle is to show my son that learning is part of the human experience-his, mine, everyone’s. I really appreciate the affirmation. 🙂

  3. I really like this & has given me much food for thought. I hope I do show my daughter respect, but this post has made me think some more about that. So far I haven’t really had to deal with rule-breaking. I do realise I am so lucky. No doubt it will hit me harder come the teenage years!! X

    1. I’m certain you do show her respect. And I’m also happy for you that rule-breaking hasn’t come up!
      I definitely think we’ll have ongoing conversations about right and wrong– when to follow rules and when to follow your own heart instead. I’m both looking forward to those moments and scared to death I’ll screw it up!
      If you come to any conclusions as you think more about respect between parents and children, I’d definitely be interested in your thoughts.

      1. I think my daughter is at an age now (7yrs) where I see more as a human being & not just this cute little kid. I’m realising she needs a little privacy now & that I definitely don’t own her. I’m sure I do show her respect, but it’s worth keeping it in mind more I think xx

  4. Very well executed and definitely food for thought, especially in this day and age where things are taken for granted or happen to someone else. Ground rules in early years do have an impact into the teen years too. What might seem harsh to them at the time, hopefully manifest into understanding later on. I guess we all go through that as children ourselves and then as adults go “Oh, that’s what Mum or Dad meant!” Often that might be when, as adults, we have to do that to our kids!!

    You are right though; back in the day with Yale locks you didn’t need a key to open the door as the lock itself inside allowed you to open it. Nowadays with increased security measures you do; caveat though is letting the door shut behind you accidentally, key still in the lock and nobody inside! Makes re-entry rather tricky!

    Great post 🙂

    1. Thanks, Gary! Sounds like you have some experience with this! 🙂 I don’t know why these doors have locks, but I know sometimes people put the locks on the outside. So it’s a choice, lock the kid in, or let yourself get locked out! Such a simple thing that gets so complex.
      Thank you for your comment and for reading!

      1. Just a bit; primary carer for my two boys (now well into teens) Chair to a pre-school for 7 years and primary school governor for 5. Had health and safety courses running parallel with domestic reality lol. You are spot on though its a simple thing gone complicated; bit like modern boilers. Back in the day if electricity went down, gas boilers still worked. Now tech has merged the two together, one down all down! There’s a post in that lol What has Tech Done for Us? 🙂

          1. I once saw some advice on post writing block; if you make a comment over two sentences then it means you have something to say on the subject so there’s your post! Either that or you write fiction and words, once started, just keep going lol

  5. Angela, as I read this, i thought “Man, I wish she was my mom!” You thoughtful and careful deliberation shows through in so many ways here. Not the least was respecting the maturity of your 8-year old son to have a conversation about wanting to share this post. Knowing that in having this conversation, your son could, if he felt uncomfortable, ask you not to share it. Some may not think this is a big deal, but for me, it says a lot about your strength of character, as well as your sons.

    I’m not a parent, so I can only imagine the challenges each day brings. What I normally see are the dramatic missteps that end badly. So when i hear about a family that, while not perfect, is actively striving to be contributing and responsible members of society, their community and within the family… I have a lot of admiration. This is a rare blessing, and one that you all obviously tend to faithfully.

    1. I have to tell you, I read your comment on Facebook and laughed. Jackson was standing right next to me and he asked what was so funny. So I read your comment to him. He laughed, too. Though I’m not entirely sure he got the joke. 🙂
      I think you’re right– maybe it’s not a big deal to ask his permission. But, I’ve come to trust the little squidgy feeling in my stomach that tells me I need to pay close attention. My gut was telling me he needed a say. I obeyed.
      I read the same sort of commitment to contribution and responsibility in your posts. None of us are going to get it exactly right, but it’s the process of learning and growing as we go that matters most.

      1. yup exactly! And if i happen to accidentally call you Ma in the future… I hope you know it comes from a place of respect (and maybe a bit of jealousy 😉 )

    1. Thanks, Tiffany. Poor little guy was truly startled by how scared it made me. He’ll get it when he achieves his dream of fatherhood (That’s one of the things he wants to be when he grows up, along with a pilot and a scientist.) Thanks for reading!

  6. Excellent post, Angela,

    You give us all the background, setup, and info we need without too much extraneous commentary.

    Jackson sounds an awful lot like my 6-year old son Romey, who as a kindergartner last school year, if you can believe it, was suspended for one day following a “repeated pattern of disruptive (not violent) behavior.” And you appear to have a similar approach to parenting as me & my wife. You handled the situation very well. The only thing I would’ve done differently, and only because I learned after having done it the way you did during an earlier incident with my daughter, would have been not to retroactively tell the offending child that, “I WAS planning to take you for _a treat_, but since you _insert undesirable behavior_, now I’m not going to.” My daughter asked, as Jackson did, “Is there anything I can do to earn it back?” and then we get into the slippery slope of teaching our youngsters how to negotiate & manipulate inappropriately. Although it appears from your story that Jackson let it go without trying to negotiate. Good for him!

    When Romey was suspended, I was flabbergasted. A kindergartner being suspended for being disruptive? When I was in 1st grade, my friend Zach stabbed me in the spine with a #2 pencil and broke the tip off. I went to the nurse, he went to the principal’s office, and an hour later, we were back in class. My son got suspended for acting like, well, a kindergardner? Come on! Still, to reinforce his understanding of the inappropriateness of his behavior, since I had to take the day off to be with him anyway, I took Romey to a local county jail for a “scared straight” tour. For the remaining months of school, he was much better-behaved. A few months later, Tennessee passed a law requiring the Dept. of Education to review its rules & procedures for pre-K and Kindergarten discipline before end of FY 2018. Here’s hoping they rethink that practice. I had no idea it had become so broadly used that the State Legislature had to step in, but I’m glad they did.

    I haven’t yet answered your questions. We handle rule-breaking in a variety of ways. After explaining why the behavior is bad and having the rule-breaker demonstrate comprehension, we role-play to convey a better range of behaviors. Or sometimes we restrict them TO their room for a while or restrict them FROM engaging in favorite activities. We use whatever tool is our parenting toolbox we feel will get the job done. As for teaching respect and good decision making, both require constant teaching, coaching, and of course modeling proper behavior.

    Thank you for this timely, thoughtful, and dialogue-inspiring post.

    Take care, be well, and happy parenting,

    Denny

    1. Hello Denny! Thank you for the very thoughtful comment!
      I think you’re absolutely right about not telling him of a privilege he lost after he had already lost it. Particularly because your six-year-old had a similar reaction. If I was told after-the-fact that I’d lost a bonus I didn’t know I was in the running for, I think I’d have a number of questions about the ethics of my boss! Point well-made.
      Do you think your Romey understood the jail? We talk a bit about these kinds of dire consequences- like what it means if you have to go to jail, but honestly I’m not sure he (my son) really gets what that means. Maybe a jail tour is a good idea- not even in a “punishment” kind of way, but more as an education on here’s a place you won’t want to be.
      I do agree that Tennessee should take a look at their suspension practices-seems harsh to me. I think I ought to take a look at my state’s discipline standards to make sure I’m educated on what to expect if something does come up in school.
      Your suggestions on role playing better choices are also good ones. I don’t do as much of that, and I think it can be a very valuable tool.
      Thanks so much, again, for your thoughts–it’s a joy to meet another parent working through these things and learning as we go!
      Angela

  7. Hi Angela! I can totally see how it would be scary if your child wasn’t responding to your door knock. I’m not a parent yet, but I always wonder about how I’ll handle rule-breaking. It was tough in my family! My parents were super strict Korean parents so our punishments were a bit overkill, but it definitely shaped how I am today. In the end, I agree. I hope I can trust my child, that ultimately they are in a safe situation, and they can respect my wishes. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thank you for reading! I’m sure you’ll take what worked from your experience as a child and apply it to your own kids. I think realizing, now as an adult, that not everything my parents did worked for me. And not everything I’ll do for my son will work for him. But that’s okay. We’ll just keep trying and loving each other. And I’m sure you’ll do the same with your future kids, too!

  8. Thank you for sharing your story. Being a parent can be tough. We use time-outs in our household and make sure to talk about what happened, why it’s not safe or a good idea, and how can we learn from it to make sure it doesn’t happen again. A lot of times, children don’t always truly understand the depth of their choices. My husband and I have found that when we ask our son or daughter if they understand a unfortunate word they may have used or an action they carried out, often the answer is no. They are learning and as hard or frustrating as it is sometimes, taking the time to openly talk about the magnitude of the situation helps. 🙂

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience! I agree with you–assuming I know what my child does or does not understand about a particular situation could lead to confusion rather than clarity. I’ve found that since this event my son has lots of questions about when to lock a door, or when it’s a bad idea. On the one hand, I think that might mean we confused him by taking the lock of the door. On the other, I wonder if its a good thing we introduced the question so he could start to dig deeper into understanding how privacy, trust and respect operates in different contexts. I think time will tell. I’ll just keep answering questions as best I can. Talking, as you say, as we both learn seems to be the best way. Thanks again for your insight! I really appreciate it.

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