Granny Witch on Connecting through mistakes

By Geneviève Hone

Where There Is A Family

There's always advice from Granny Witch

How can parents best help their children learn from their

mistakes? Consider 'Time-Withs' instead of 'Time-Outs'

Hone, small image.

Dear Granny Witch,

I feel really bad just now, guilty, worried and confused. We’ve just sent our six year old boy in time-out for the rest of the day and we’ve informed him that he won’t get to play with his cousin tomorrow. You see, Granny Witch, we discovered that yesterday he stole his sister Michelle’s favorite doll and deliberately destroyed it. His excuse is that he needed to see what made the doll cry when you pressed her belly button. So he worked on removing her head and opening her chest, and of course he wrecked the thing. He knew he had done wrong because he hid the doll underneath other stuff in the recycling bin where we found it this afternoon.

Granny Witch, I feel guilty and confused because I don’t know if we have been too harsh on Damien (not his real name) or too soft. Every time my husband and I have to punish the kids, we do it blindly, so to speak. We’ve read a couple of parenting books, and the authors recommend being fair and persistent while punishing a child. But these authors don’t actually live with a doll-wrecker who has excuses for every bad behavior he engages in. The worst part is that I’m not even certain that Damien will learn his lesson. I feel we should have handled this differently, but I don’t know how. I’m afraid I’ve damaged the good connection I have had with Damien.

Granny Witch, what is the best method for punishing children?

Signed: Guilty, worried and confused.

Dear Guilty, worried and confused,

  Image: Non non non non, by Julien Mercure.
  Image: Forgiven, by Julien Mercure.

How to punish people, be they children or adults, is a question with which humanity has forever grappled. Different societies throughout history have tried many approaches in dealing with unacceptable behavior: capital punishment, jail, torture, ostracism, exile, to name but a few. Indeed humans have shown great creativity in making their fellow men and women suffer for their sins. But far too often, these forms of punishment have not led to reconciliation and peace, nor to the joy of reconnection and forgiveness. They have just led to more pain for everyone involved in the process.

I must confess, dear Guilty, that I don’t like your question, simply because I don’t like the concept of punishing little people. So I am changing it to “How can parents best help their children to learn from their mistakes?”  And therefore, I suggest we define Damien’s behavior as a “mistake” as opposed to a “bad deed”. This definition does not diminish the fact that Damien’s behavior caused real pain to Michelle who lost her cherished doll in a botched, unauthorized surgical procedure. Dolls are real persons to their owner and Michelle may miss her doll very much.

As you help Damien come to terms with the effect of his behaviour, do keep in mind however that Damien’s intention was probably not to inflict pain. To Damien, a doll is an inert object, perhaps even a ridiculous one, because he has never loved a doll and can’t understand the fascination girls have for their dolls. But this particular doll attracted his interest because of the gadget in her belly that made her cry. Damien seems curious about how things work and perhaps he wondered how he could use this gadget in the fire engine he is building with his Lego blocks. He really felt the need to investigate.

You’ve dealt with the situation as best you could by giving Damien a time-out and by withdrawing a privilege. But you are wondering how you could have handled the situation differently. Please allow me to help you prepare for the next occasion where Damien might do something just as “bad” as performing surgery without proper training. I propose three steps.

Step 1. Pretend that you can go back in time to the instant that you discovered Michelle’s doll in the bin and also that you are given the opportunity to do things differently this time. Visualize yourself in the situation and take a few moments to become aware of your feelings and thoughts as you prepare to act. Then start looking within yourself for a comfortable space where you feel solid in your knowledge that you are the “big person” in this situation and that you can interact with your little boy in a manner that won’t damage your connection with him. Take a few deep breaths, go get Damien and tell him more or less in these words: “We need to talk about this and we’ll do that when we’re both ready. But meanwhile, I want you to think of a few good things you have recently done in our family. That’s all for now!” Damien will be quite surprised as he was expecting to be scolded or punished. Send him on his way with a hug, but no explanation!

Step 2. In a day or two, invite Damien to a two-minute conversation. Again, he probably expects reproaches or penalties, but don’t go that way. Only you and/or your husband are allowed to talk in this special conversation where you remind Damien of some of the many good things he has done recently. “You have been putting your bicycle in the shed as we have asked you to. You have let your sister borrow your soccer ball.” Avoid generalizations such as “You are such a good boy”. Then dismiss Damien, again without providing explanations. Take a day or two before Step 3.

Step 3. Choose a moment when you feel calm and strong, sit Damien down and start this way: “You got yourself into a proper mess, Damien. Cutting up your sister’s doll was a serious mistake. What happened? What made you want to break open the doll?” Listen carefully to what Damien has to say, including the excuses he may come up with such as “Well, I didn’t think Michelle would really mind because she doesn’t play with that doll very much now.” Don’t comment, don’t argue, just listen. And when he is winding down, ask if he has anything to add. It’s now your turn to talk, so you establish firmly that Damien must apologize to Michelle and make it up to her in some way. Help Damien practice apologizing, and help him out with his plans to make amends. At some point, involve Michelle in the conversation. She needs to be heard and she can suggest ideas to Damien who wants to make it up to her.

Finally, as your parenting books recommend, be persistent! Make sure that Damien does make it up to Michelle in the following days. Only then will the learning experience be complete.

You’ve mentioned time-outs in your letter. Sometimes they are useful, when for example things have really gotten out of hand and you need to separate the “players”. But I invite you to use them sparingly because they do separate the children from their parents precisely in the moments that children most need their parents’ help, which is when they are incapable of dealing with frustration, anger, fear, fatigue or stress. My suggestion: if at all feasible, replace “time-outs” with “time-ins” taken with your child. Find a quiet spot to just be together till things begin to settle down and life seems friendlier. These calming moments may include gentle talk and a back rub to help deal with guilt, worry and confusion for the both of you. Actually time-ins might also be called “time-withs”, because being with each other while you learn together from your mistakes will strengthen your connection and it is through this connection that you may experience the joy of forgiving and being forgiven.

Dear Guilty, Worried and Confused, I am confident that you can build from these suggestions and I wish you courage and creativity while helping your children learn from their mistakes.

Granny Witch.