Accidents happen. Kids spill their milk. They know they messed up. They’re already sorry. Yelling at them will not improve the situation. Yelling will only make it worse. When the milk glass tumbles, your best course of action is to throw napkins at the spill, make efficient use of anything absorbent, and keep repeating, “No problem. No problem.” (Make sure you sponge up all the milk from any carpet because sour milk smells pretty nasty after about three days.)
After the dining room settles down there are several courses of action to take. Certainly, you may want to reassess the size and shape of drinking cups you use. (Although you don’t want to humiliate a seven-year-old by making him revert to using a sippy cup.) You may want to quietly pour smaller portions for a while. You may also want to keep a roll of paper towels within reach. But what you don’t want to do is make a big serious deal about it. Like I said, accidents happen.
Laughing it off is actually a pretty wise option. During the entire decade of the 1990s, my wife regularly threatened our sons with charm school. An excellent dad response would be to recall embarrassing moments in your own life when you dipped your tie into the gravy boat or tucked the tablecloth into your pants and pulled the entire table setting onto your lap. Make something up if you have to -- the more outlandish the better. Then let them know you still expect them to be a little more careful.
We want our kids to believe that when something bad happens, dad makes it better. If it’s something minor like spilled milk, dad will make it all go away. If it’s more serious, dad will help fix it, tow it, restore it, minimize the damage, or stand beside me as I face the music. Yes, there will be repercussions. If damage was done, dad is not going to let me get away without paying some kind of price. But, I trust him. Dad will provide a voice of reason and bring calm to the storm.
Unfortunately, some dads rage when their kids mess up. It begins with yelling “What’s wrong with you!” after a glass tips at the dinner table. And it just gets worse. Raging is always counterproductive. It drives the culprit away. It reinforces the idea that bringing a problem to dad is a bad idea and will just make matters worse. What happens then? The next time there’s a mess that needs straightening dad never finds out.
Does that sound like a good thing? It most definitely is not. Until your children are well into adulthood, one of your most important jobs is to help guide them through the dark tunnels and thorny paths of life.
It begins with small things. Spilled milk? No problem. Broken window? Let’s head to the hardware store. A crack in mom’s favorite vase? Let’s go tell her together.
Then it gets more complex. The older kid at the bus stop is picking a fight with your son. Your son accidentally slams the cat in the car door. He’s getting a D in algebra. He rolls the Volkswagen onto its roof leaving a highway exit ramp during his early morning delivery job. His girlfriend breaks his heart. (All of which happened to me.)
Be the Hero, Dad
Kids of any age need to be able to pick up their cell phone and call dad. When you get that call, Dad, be thankful. They could have called someone else, but you have earned their trust. They know you will rise to the occasion and be the dad. Maybe later, you will deliver a short lecture, insist on an apology, or require some financial restitution, but for now you are the hero of the moment.
With all the serious life challenges that lie ahead for your kids doesn’t it seem trivial to raise your voice over a little puddle of milk? What really matters is your relationship and making things right. When faced with any problem at any time, you need to be able to say, “I love you. It’ll be okay. We’ll get through this together.”
Can you do that? Do you have the courage to commit to that response no matter what? Here’s a test then. What would be your initial response to these statements from one of your kids?
“Dad, I wrecked the car.”
“Dad, I’m dropping out of school.”
“Dad, I’m at the police station.”
“Dad, I’m pregnant.”
“Dad, my girlfriend is pregnant.”
Yes, you need to get all the facts. Yes, you need to make sure the punishment fits the crime. Yes, you need to help meet all short-term needs while keeping the future in mind. But the core message of how you respond needs to be “I love you. It’ll be okay. We’ll get through this together.”
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