The other night, I was pulled over for running a red light. Free was in the backseat. I saw the light turning red but made a split second (bad) decision; glancing ahead, I saw no cars were coming, and I didn’t want to throw on the brakes with Free in the back. I sailed through the light, and the police officer threw on his lights and sailed right after me. Free heard his siren and started crying. I’m not proud that my first thought was that maybe her crying would help my case, but there you have it. As I pulled over and waited for the officer to emerge from his cruiser, I tried to calm her down. “It’s ok honey; Mommy ran a red light, and he’s pulling me over.”
“Mom, are you going to jail?” she wailed. By the time the officer appeared, I had reassured her enough to reduce the wail to a whimper. When asked to hand over my license and registration, I immediately admitted to my poor decision. I was so matter of fact about it that the officer didn’t have to say much. He returned to his car to write me up, and I returned to the task of comforting Noa. It was a teachable moment, so I owned it. “What I did wasn’t safe. It’s just like when children get a punishment. It helps grownups remember not to do dangerous things. He will give me a ticket, and I will try never to do that again.”
Free started crying again. She handed me her change purse, which she had dug out of her purse while the officer was hearing my confession. I was touched yet amused that she had settled on the change purse rather than her wallet, which carries all her actual dollar bills. “Thanks honey, but I’ve got it. It’s my mistake, and I’ll pay for it.” More tears followed. “But mom, now you won’t be able to take me on vacation!”
Oh, so that was it. Just before I was pulled over, I’d broached the possibility of taking a trip together during our next break. I had to laugh, and when the officer came back with a warning instead of a ticket because of my good driving record, I thanked him profusely, and Free and I went on our way.
It all got me thinking. I’m sure I would have freaked out more if I hadn’t had Free to focus on, and I’m glad to know as a driver, I look good on paper. I also feel, however, that my immediate ownership of my mistake helped ease the way to the officer being a little more forgiving and to me being ready to pay the ticket, if need be. Taking responsibility helped me sidestep some drama, even if it were just the drama in my head. Granted, I can afford to pay a ticket these days, as opposed to in my twenties when it devastated my extremely tight budget. That’s not to say that a ticket doesn’t still hurt financially though; it does.
The point is that taking responsibility can be freeing. Yesterday, my friend at work shared an email, allegedly from a student, that apologized for missed work and asked for help in making it up. The email was signed by the student’s mother, who had apparently had a momentary lapse while scripting for her son. The blunder made us laugh in the moment, but the idea of a mother covering for her (junior) high school son’s mistakes like that makes me cringe in the long run. Too many parents at the school where I work think it is better to help their kids succeed at any cost than to teach them how to take responsibility for, and learn from, mistakes or failures. The irony is that two of our high school’s core values are responsibility and resilience.
It won’t always be easy, but I vow to try not to take that path with Free as she journeys through the same school system. A few weeks ago, she got upset when she didn’t earn a bookmark for completing her reading contract. She had done the work, but because her dad had taken the contract out of her backpack and failed to put it back in before she came to my house for a couple of nights. Because she didn’t get it back in time, she couldn’t get the credit or reward. Now, the reward was a bookmark, people; she’s got about a hundred of those lying next to her bed. The tears she cried about losing it were real though, and she complained at her special circumstances (two homes) that made it tougher for her than for most of her peers. I listened, feeling her pain and feeling the guilt of having put her in this position. I thought about how to respond. I could have called the teacher and asked her to rethink her decision. I certainly wanted to.
Eventually, I sat Free down to talk about it. In the talk, I acknowledged the challenges she faced because of having two homes and that they would not go away. I told her if she could figure out how to overcome those challenges, it would help her practice and get good at problem-solving, and that that was something that would really help her in her life. I told her there were bad things about her situation but good things too. I told her the teacher had made a decision, and she had to follow the rules. Was there another chance to get another reward down the road? There was. Would she try again? She said she would. I told her I’d help. Next, we brainstormed what we could change for next time. We talked about responsibility and what that word meant. We set some goals, for her and for me and her dad.
It’s a small step, but I think it’s in the right direction. Free won’t remember the bookmark next year but by then, she may just have developed the habit of checking her own backpack before she goes to bed at night. I hope so, anyway. Meanwhile, I’m learning to balance the task of helping her without doing too much for her. It’s not always easy to determine when I should back off, when I should step in. What I do know is that on the journey together, Free and I both get to make mistakes, as long as we learn from them.