The metaphor of the shattered plate did not escape me.
I had been sailing down the basement stairs to grab some hot dogs out of the freezer. I was moving too quickly, letting the stress get to me, trying to do too much. Rounding the bottom of the stairs, the plate dropped.
A thousand tiny pieces scattered on the concrete. For once, I didn’t rush for the broom. My day had shattered a half-hour earlier, and this plate was telling me to breathe.
An unexpected tinkling cut the silence. Like a bowl of Rice Krispies, a strange snapping and crackling echoed for 30 seconds, maybe a minute after the crash. I squinted at the debris and noticed tiny pieces of tempered glass cleaving apart, jumping like tiny grasshoppers.
The energy of the crash — this one and the figurative one earlier — demanded to play itself out.
I picked myself up before I picked up the plate. I trudged up the stairs in defeat. As the mother of the child who hit, it was all I could muster.
We had gone swimming with friends that afternoon. Everyone had been laughing and playing well together. The boys had gotten out of the pool to play in a nearby tree house.
A few peaceful minutes passed before the scream.
The sound, one of pain, came from a friend. He bounded down the tree house stairs, wincing and clutching the top of his head.
The truth took a second to emerge. My 4-year-old son — my kind, compassionate lover of animals and people — had thrown a metal bracket at the friend’s head. He had aimed and fired purposefully and come up with a direct hit.
He was upset about something and failed to use his words. He had been having trouble with that at home, but we were working on it.
Suddenly, with this first incident outside the bubble of our family, “working on it” didn’t seem good enough. Someone was hurt. And while the friend recovered without medical attention, this felt like a catalyst, a crossroads in the life of my son and his friend. That moment would scar all of us in our own ways. I imagined that the boys wouldn’t forget it, and it might damage their friendship. I felt the weight of it keenly: The long-term effect on my son, whether the hitting would worsen or subside, would depend in a big way on my reaction.
I don’t know if I did it right. I had my son give a hasty apology, then yanked him home. I saved my lecture until we closed the front door. I tried to keep a level tone, but my emotions flared as I spewed my disappointment. I asked him how he would feel with the roles reversed. Would he want to continue being friends, or would he be angry, even fearful, of the friend?
That’s when the recognition clicked. He didn’t want to lose his friend. He empathized. We agreed that he should return for a proper apology, and — his idea — he would proffer an ice pop.
So much of parenting is like steering a ship around icebergs. All your effort goes into staying afloat, but sometimes it’s dark and you just can’t see them coming. But if you’re damaged, you make repairs, you keep steering, you attempt the turn again. For big ships, the turn takes time. Maybe it doesn’t look like the ship is turning at first, but eventually it will get there.
Kids take time to learn their lessons, especially the weightiest and most important ones. I’m learning that sometimes hitting the iceberg is consequence enough.
After I offered my own apology, my friend pointed out that as the mom of the kid who screwed up, I probably had it the worst. “But the thing is,” she said — I love this — “we all get to play both roles, and it changes all the time.”
Hearing that helped me breathe. After the plate broke, I sat down for a minute. I hugged my son and told him I loved him. I grabbed the broom, collected the debris. Then I got another plate, walked a little slower and retrieved the hot dogs. We still had to eat.