I make a lot of parenting mistakes. Some are minor, like forgetting we need ketchup or, in a moment of desperation at the ice rink, putting Diet Coke in Emma’s sippy cup. Now she loves the stuff.
This week I made a major mistake. I gave my 5-year-old son the following advice: “If someone pushes you first, you can push them back.”
Yup. I did.
I realized my big mistake at hockey practice while my 3-year-old was enthusiastically sucking Diet Coke out of her Cinderella sippy cup and I was watching a boy named Jamie slam my son, William, up against the boards, smack him over the head with a hockey stick, tackle him, sit on top of him and pummel him with his fists (albeit in full gear). I realized that if I didn’t intervene, William was going to clobber Jamie back. Well, as soon as my son managed to stand up in ice skates with some 50-pound kid sitting on top of him.
As visions of William beating Jamie over the head with a hockey stick flashed through my mind, I immediately went over to the place where there isn’t any glass and the mothers aren’t allowed.
As my son stood up I yelled at him to come over to me. I bent over the boards, grabbed my son’s face mask and got as close to that kid’s face as you can when he is wearing a hockey helmet. My parenting technique at this point can only be described as the sort of thing I never plan out on a weekly schedule.
5:47 p.m. Monday: Get in William’s face at hockey practice and yell as loudly as you possibly can in front of every parent and coach in the rink.
“Do not hit him back. Do not do it!
“I don’t care if he pushed you first, don’t do it!”
As I release his face mask he skates backward away from me. He looks at me and starts yelling,
“But you told me I could push back! You told me!”
He screams even louder.
He carries the “i” so the liiiiiied takes him about 17 seconds to scream at me.
William then did something I have never seen him do before. He punched both fists down at his sides, tensed up his entire body and reached way down deep inside his 5-year-old self and, full of rage and fear and instinct, he growled at me. Like a grizzly bear.
And then he skated away. I realized that although I had not done much to strengthen my parenting bond, my son was now so angry at me that he growled, and he would forget about Jamie. That was kinda the point. I didn’t want him to clobber Jamie.
But here’s the thing. When I told him he could push back, that’s what I told him to do.
And I realized as I was standing there that when it comes to parenting my 5-year-old, I need to teach right vs. wrong. The rule must be, has to be, do not push. I don’t care if they push you first. Yeah, that’s a great rule for a kid who plays hockey.
At the same time, I don’t want my son getting pushed around, not on the playground, not on the ice and not in life. So how do you teach them not to push or shove, unless someone does it to you first, and you have tried to talk it out and it isn’t working and it’s someone or something you feel strongly about defending and, yeah, okay, if you don’t go for the head or try to hurt them, sometimes you do have to push back.
Maybe as they grow up, they figure the gray area out for themselves. Maybe at some point in his youth hockey career he’ll figure out those times when he can push. He’ll figure out how to be competitive and stay in the game.
That night, I sat down on my son’s bed at bedtime. Me, the woman not entirely comfortable with screaming my fool head off at hockey practice, wants to talk about it.
“Mom, we don’t have to talk about pushing again.”
“Mom, I get it. Don’t push. Can I go to sleep now?"
He’s got the new rule, he’s good with it.
As I walked out of his room, he did have one more question for me, “Mom, if I can’t push back, what can I do?”
I paused for a minute. I didn’t have any good answers, any right answers. As I turned out the lights and walked out the door, I answered him.
Maraya Steadman, who lives in a Chicago suburb, is a stay-at-home mother of three children. She can be reached at email@example.com.