I'll never forget the morning of July 5 a few years ago. A police car was parked outside my neighbor's house, and the crackling radio sounds pierced the quiet air. Someone, my neighbor said, had blown up his mailbox, using a package of firecrackers. The mailbox dangled, mortally wounded, from its post.
What a coincidence, I thought. Just the night before, after hearing a loud boom outside, I had confiscated a bag of firecrackers from my son, Eric, then 13. Returning home, I found Eric, and told him: "I saw the neighbor's blown-up mailbox." His eyes opened wide and he blurted, "It wasn't just me, Dad!"
"As far as I'm concerned, it was just you," I said.
He looked down at the floor. "I'm sorry, Dad."
"Being sorry isn't enough. Blowing up a mailbox is a crime, and there's a policeman outside who wants to talk with you." Several minutes later, I was back outside, Eric in tow. "Here's your man," I announced to the neighbor. "Whether you choose to press charges or not, Eric will pay for the mailbox. He will also be happy to do some work around your house to compensate for your inconvenience and your upset."
The neighbor was kind enough not to press charges, and for the next few weeks, Eric mowed the neighbor's lawn and weeded. In addition, the money Eric was saving for a new bicycle accessory instead was used to pay for the neighbor's new mailbox.
You might say I laid a guilt trip on my son. You'd be right. Guilt is a necessary human emotion. Without it, civilization would come apart at the seams.
More and more lately, I hear of parents who seem to be unable to accept that their children might occasionally do something wrong. In neighborhoods from Seattle to Seekonk, too many of today's parents seek self-esteem through their children. If their children are well-behaved, parents feel good about themselves. However, if their children misbehave, parents feel threatened and respond to protect not only the children, but themselves as well. What they should remember is this:
- Even the most well raised children can be counted on to indulge in occasional wrongdoing.
- When children misbehave, their parents' primary obligation is to make sure the children are held responsible for their actions.
- Children whose parents hold them accountable for their behavior are less likely to misbehave.
Accepting responsibility for their own behavior helps children develop self-control, which is another boost to self-esteem. The more successful children are at controlling their lives, the better they feel about themselves.
Teaching children the difference between good and bad behavior also involves teaching them when it's appropriate to feel guilty. This is how conscience develops. And conscience is what keeps good kids, even though they might occasionally do bad things, from going truly bad.