We were in the midst of a heated tear-filled exposition of a fight. You know the kind. It’s a scene we repeat in our house almost daily, and I suspect in your house too. Someone messes with someone else, another one gets involved, and after a lot of yelling and crying and declarations of “you never” and “I always,” the adult trying to mediate finally judges: “This is one giant mess and each one of you has contributed to it.”
(Side note: This time, I heard myself getting louder and actually had the thought that the “experts” say if one person lowers their voice, it will bring down the volume and intensity for everyone. You guys. I tried it, AND IT WORKED.)
I thought we were done, until one of the kids said I hadn’t listened, that I didn’t know the whole story. It was like the scenes in Back to the Future in which Marty stops and says, “Nobody calls me chicken.” Nobody tells Joy she isn’t listening. I stopped, looked at the child, and said “Ok, tell me what you think I’m missing.”
Once again, the story came tumbling out, this time with the speaker owning their mistakes instead of making excuses or insinuating that the others should be tougher and less sensitive.
And then he said, “I’m not able think before I speak, Mom. That is impossible for me. I just react. There’s no such thing as ‘Think before you speak.’ That’s the way it is.”
My heart ached as I heard those words I’ve thought to myself, pouring out of my child’s soul with the same desperation and frustration I share.
“Honey, I know it’s tough. But that’s why we have to practice. This is good practice for later. You’re going to have to learn how to deal with coworkers, roommates, and friends who are sensitive or inconsiderate or whatever.” It was a speech I’ve given a few (dozen) times. I saw him roll his eyes.
And then the bomb dropped. This boy, my 11-year-old almost-grown mature-in-so-many-ways beyond his years, looked me in the eyes and with tears in his, said something that in an instant justified the eye-rolls and blew the doors off a key part of my mothering.
“Mom, you always say that. You say this is practice. But it is real. This is real life, Mom.”
In seconds, I saw what he was saying. When I told the kids that these disputes and disagreements with each other were “practice,” I demeaned and trivialized the very real relationships in our family, the conflicts and our work to find resolution, and both the pain and healing that took place.
I have no idea what the other members of the family were thinking that moment. I just know this: I took a breath, then quietly answered, “You are right. This is very real, and I’ve been wrong to say it isn’t.”
I tried to comfort without making false promises: shared how change happens so slowly we can’t see it, that talking things through might help us start to think differently, and that I learn things from experiences today that will help me navigate ones tomorrow. He’s still skeptical, but we cried and hugged and said “I love you” and “I’m hungry, let’s get some dinner.”
As we pulled on our coats, I thought how grateful I am that even though the process is flawed and very much in need of further improvement, my son was willing to speak. He taught me something Real.