I glanced in the backseat and I saw it. Dark circles and lines put on the new carpeted seats by my five year old. This is just a day after we found red pen marks on this bedroom walls and pillow case hand embroidered by his great grandmother. Typically, my initial reaction would have been to immediately call him out on it, angrily berating him in front of his little brother and two friends in the van. "I can't believe you did that! You know better! What were you thinking?!?" Instead, I made a conscious choice to do the opposite. I chose to connect rather than condemn, teach rather than punish, and focus on relationship rather than behavior. Through the steps that my son and I took to "solve this problem together", I made huge discoveries about his thought process and emotional vulnerability, my ability to regulate my emotional state, and our love and respect for one another.
First, I focused on calming myself. I took deep breaths and looked at the bigger picture. Almost all kids go through a phase where they write on walls and need a reminder that pens are for paper. I thought I had covered that lesson from every angle in the 4+ years he has been using writing/drawing tools, but for my creative child who cannot recycle a cardboard box until he uses it for a "project", I chose to focus on positive intent. This allowed me to calm my anxiety about getting pen marks out of my 2011 vehicle just a couple months after it was leased.
Next, I considered his feelings. He seemed genuinely remorseful and willing to give up his pen writing habit when I calmly talked to him about it the day before. If I were to bring this up in front of the others, he would feel embarrassed and defensive. If I were to be negatively accusatory about it when I discussed it with him, he would shut down and be concerned in the future on how to hide things better or lie to protect himself. Also, I have learned that punishments do not work in the long run. It just breaks down trust in the relationship and puts parent against child. If I discussed it with him in an angry, lecturing tone or forced unpleasant "consequences" for the purpose of making him suffer so that he would "learn his lesson", he may or may not remember to only write on paper. However, he would remember feeling that my love was conditional based on his behavior. He would learn that my love could be removed if he did something "bad" and internalize this to how he feels about himself throughout his adolescent and adult years.
So, I waited. Once I felt calm enough and had some time when we were alone in a calm setting, I asked him if he remembered how he wrote on the walls the day before. He said yes and I could feel his body tense and his face looked worried. I kept my voice soft and even and my body language neutral. I asked him if there were any other places he had written that I should know about. He swallowed big and told me about the closet door, couch, kitchen set, and book shelf.
With that news, internally I was screaming "OMG WTF!" Outwardly, I breathed. Then, I said matter-of-factly, "That is a lot of places. Anywhere else?" He said he didn't think so and I replied, "Well, how about in the van? Any there?" He said, "Yah, I decorated the seat in front of me (which I hadn't seen yet) and the seat next to me, too."
With this, let me add a disclaimer. I am a hands-on mom. I do not sit on the couch watching talk shows while my kids run wild. My children play alone in their room for maybe 10 minutes before I check on them or they come out or call for me to help with something. I don't leave them unattended in the car except for the occasional, "I forgot my coffee, so need to run in and grab it from the counter while you wait in your car seats" kind of moment. How he managed to cover so much ground (or wall or carpet) was beyond me. Then again, I did recently regain the privilege of peeing with the bathroom door shut for the first time in over five years and let's face it, kids are quick!
After he shared with me all of the places, we talked about how what he did wasn't okay, that he wasn't "in trouble", and I wasn't mad. However, he was learning and now knew for future reference. We also agreed that he would solve the problem by scrubbing off all of his marks after his friends left that afternoon (with my help). As I concluded our 'talk', it seemed like he felt a mixture of relief and disbelief that I wasn't over the top freaking out about it or didn't try to make him feel bad for his actions. (If I know him, I would guess he was already feeling bad about it and feeling even worse that he hadn't told me about it...or honestly, he didn't know it wasn't okay. Either way, I am glad it wasn't me inflicting these feelings on him, but his own internal process of learning.)
About four o'clock, the other boys went home and we got to work scrubbing. I used this time to talk to him about how nice it looked after it was clean, the importance of taking care of our stuff, and he shared what he was thinking. "It's my logo, Mom. I wanted to write it and decorate the seats with it." Following that, we discussed other options for displaying his logo and the concept of trade-in value of vehicles. Most importantly, we talked about how it felt for him to do something and then realize it wasn't a good choice. I assured him that his dad and I promised to not get mad when he tells us something he's done that might not have been the best choice or a mistake after the fact. We also talked about how our family was a team and could work together to solve problems.
After we finished, he sat on the couch and I noticed him taking frequent, short breaths. My husband reminded me that this is what he sometimes does when he feels nervous and doesn't know how to handle it. I went over and sat next to him and he snuggled up to my side. I encouraged him to take long, slow breaths with me like he was sucking in and blowing out air slowly through a straw. He quickly regained regular a regular breathing pattern and we continued on with the rest of our night, not to bring up the incident again as to not make it a bigger deal than it was.
Do I think this is how I would have handled this situation six months ago? Absolutely not! Reading Dan Siegal, Alphie Kohn, Dr. Laura Markham, Genevieve Simperingham, Patty Wipfler, Lu Hanessian, and others share their knowledge and stories has allowed me to heal old wounds from my past, change unhealthy patterns that have emerged in our family, and approach each situation mindful of our overall emotional well being.
Do I think that my son learned something today? Absolutely! He learned he could trust me to be on his side, no matter what. He learned he is safe with whatever he brings me. He learned that my love goes beyond the things we own and mistakes that happen from time to time. He learned that all problems can be solved if we work together and that he is a valued part of our family. And, maybe, if we are lucky, he learned to keep the pen marks on paper.