Several weeks ago my niece and nephew were visiting from Minnesota. I was so excited to show them all that Hawai’i had to offer. One day we decided to visit downtown Hilo, pulling into a parking stall in the packed lot of the bustling business district and excitedly gathered in front of our vehicle to talk about what shops to visit first. As we did I noticed that the rather new-looking car next to ours had one very obvious flaw: a small, but deep dent on the driver’s-side door. I stopped mid-sentence and went to inspect, fearing the white paint filling the dent was from my white car’s door. Sure enough, it was a perfect match and I quickly pieced together the fact that my 9-year-old nephew had accidentally opened his door too quickly and inflicted some fairly significant damage to some stranger’s otherwise flawless vehicle.
I looked in this stranger’s car and then around the general area to see if anyone had as horrified a look on his or her face as I did. It seemed no one (including my entourage) were aware of the emerging scene and for a split second, I thought “I could get the kids back in the car, drive away, and no one would be the wiser.” As I considered this option, a little (and very annoying) voice said, “Wait a minute” and I imagined 10 or so years into the future, seeing my daughter and her cousins driving around Hilo together. I saw them in a similar situation as the present one, but speeding away from the scene in order to avoid the consequences of their actions, laughing and saying “Ha! We totally got away with that!” It was in that moment I realized that in order to increase the likelihood of these impressionable youth taking responsibility for their actions in the future I had to take some responsibility for my nephew’s actions now while the price tag was still relatively small and I could guide him through the process.
As I mentally returned to the present I took several deep breaths, reminding myself that my nephew was only 9 and that my intention was not to shame him, but rather to let him experience the steps involved in taking responsibility for his actions. Knowing I was about to enter into a process of teaching that might take several weeks I also had to remind myself to be patient and kind as this would only work if my nephew sensed I was not judging him, but rather helping him with a process of reparation.
I first asked him if he was aware of the damage; he was (as most kids would be) non-committal, saying he didn’t know about it. I reassured him that I was not angry (making sure my tone of voice and even my body posture were congruent with this), but rather wanted to help him figure out how to help this damaged car’s owner fix his or her car. After engaging in some Socratic questioning (e.g., What do you think we could do?) I offered the suggestion that we leave a note, offering help with wording only after asking if he wanted help. Soon he had composed a succinct note to the car owner offering to pay for the damage and leaving my telephone number. That was it: No yelling or lecturing. Just a note left on the owner’s windshield and we got back to our original conversation about what shops to visit first.
Fast-forward a few days and the owner of the damaged vehicle called me. I explained the situation, including that I was trying to teach my nephew about taking responsibility for his actions. The car owner seemed somewhat annoyed by the damage (stating it was the first damage to her otherwise new car), but was supportive of the lesson to be learned through the experience.
At this point I hadn’t shared this story with any other family. In my family, so often when a child makes a mistake it seems that each adult must take a turn giving the child feedback (some not always constructive). This can be overwhelming and confusing to a child. Therefore, my nephew and I would share the situation, but only when the time seemed right to do so.
Again, fast-forward a few weeks and I received a text from the car owner stating she had told her friend about the lesson I was trying to teach my nephew. This had inspired her friend to write about the experience in our local newspaper, stating it was how adults can inspire children to act with integrity, going so far as to say she hoped my nephew would someday run for president of the United States.
This was the opening I was looking for to share the story with the rest of the family. I gathered them all in the living room and asked my nephew to read aloud the newspaper clipping. The response was overwhelmingly positive as all laughed, hugged, kissed, and congratulated my nephew for acting with such integrity.
Throughout the years of parenting of my own children and practicing as a family therapist, I found that while certainly parents raise their children, children are equally responsible for raising their parents. While not every parenting experience need be as in-depth as the one with my nephew, it is important to remember that our children need us to teach them, but more importantly we need them to teach us.