I have a story to share, but I want to be clear about something first. My goal here is not to shame my child publicly. I will not name names… or even use pronouns. Because every child makes mistakes, and hopefully learns from them… and in no way deserves to be shamed online. So that’s not what this is about. Instead, it’s about my role as a parent – and how I found a creative solution in a difficult situation. One that turned out better than I expected, and by sharing, might help someone else.
I was at a complete loss. A call from the principal telling me my child caused pain to another child by using very unkind words. I was speechless. It was one of those parenting moments where I didn’t have a single, freaking clue how to handle the situation. A situation that broke my heart and made me question my effectiveness as a parent.
Luckily, I had some time to think it over before I got home from work. I told a couple of close coworkers what happened and watched their faces drop. I called my husband to talk it through and he, too, was speechless. We were both struggling to know what to do. The usual “go-to” punishments didn’t seem at all adequate – taking away screen time, or allowance or foregoing other privileges. No, taking something away didn’t seem right at all. It wouldn’t fix anything and it couldn’t transform the heart of a child who said hurtful words.
Of course, apologies were in order. A letter to the other child was a good place to start. And a discussion. A BIG discussion (slash lecture) with lots of eye contact and teaching empathy and how words can hurt and why we need to be kind and help people.
That’s when, in the moment, it came to me. Community service. Not a punishment, per se, but an atonement. A way to focus on helping others and giving through service. And it would begin that evening.
I assigned a number of hours to be completed and together, we found a notebook to log the service activities and time spent each day. And, for a little extra motivation, there would be no screen time of any kind until the community service hours were completed.
Even though a part of me wanted my child to feel punished and suffer, like the child who was hurt… I knew that in order to be effective, the Community Service, needed to stir a sense of giving in the child’s heart and a provide a feeling of atonement – a sense of being right with themselves and God.
So instead of simply dictating the community service, we discussed options, and my child decided which service activities they would complete. It wasn’t easy – there was some moaning and whining and frustrations. But ultimately, within just a few days, this child was picking up a significant amount of trash in the neighborhood, offering to help a neighbor by picking up sticks in their yard after a storm (and then doing it), cleaning up old toys and trash from an abandoned park nearby and baking cookies to give to neighbors to brighten their day.
During that same week, a neighbor child asked our family to donate money to their school for new computers. My child generously donated their own money and gave me a compelling reason why I should also donate. Admittedly, I was impressed and pointed out how being generous with our time and money was being a good friend and member of the community. My child earned 15 minutes towards their community service for this after the fact. It felt good to recognize this positive behavior.
There was more that needed to happen. As a parent, I needed to reach out to the other child’s mother. To assure her know I knew about the situation and was taking it very seriously. I wanted her to hear how disappointed I was in my child’s behavior, how wonderful I think her child is and that my expectations are this will never happen again. I also shared how we were dealing with the situation at home, including the community service. She responded graciously the next day, telling me she read the letter to her child and they were both praying for my child.
I don’t have an amazing “moral of the story” or key takeaway to share. Weeks later, the community service is over and I still wonder if it had an impact. In the moment, it felt like the right thing to do and I believe there was a sense of joy and pride in how the service work made a difference in the community. As for me, I continue to look for ways to lead by example, demonstrating kindness and giving to others. And remembering that ‘natural consequences’ for a situation can sometimes mean ‘making amends’ — not only apologizing, but by putting a whole bunch of positive energy into the world.
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