Last week while grocery shopping, I witnessed a brother and sister, probably no more than four and five years old, get into a scrap in the produce aisle. I’m not sure what precipitated the argument, but it ended when the little boy pulled his sister’s hair and shoved her to the ground. At least that’s the part his mother saw before she intervened. She missed the part where the little girl kicked her brother in the shins and punched him in the stomach.
The mother grabbed her son by the arm and yanked him away from his sister. The first thing out of her mouth made me cringe.
“What would Jesus say if He walked through those doors right now and saw you do that?” She enhanced every third word with another yank on her son’s arm.
That little boy huffed and puffed his indignation. “He wouldn’t a said nothing, Mama. He would have whooped her butt, too.”
To avoid laughing at the scene before me and applauding the little boy’s response, I found the apples very interesting and checked each one for bruises. I assumed the little boy told his mother what his sister had done because it wasn’t long before her arm was being yanked by mom, too.
Their interaction reminded me of another incident I witnessed years ago. I was in the toy aisle at Wal-Mart trying to find a suitable present for my daughter to take to a birthday party. The poster selection was located across the aisle and a young boy about ten years old flipped the hinged, framed selection back and forth like dominoes. He’d start at one end of the rack and push until the poster at the far end flipped and then the rest would follow. Once they all fell to the other side, he’d walk over and push the opposite way until the deck of posters flipped back. After a few turns of back and forth, he started flipping through each one individually. At first I didn’t think he looked at the posters. It seemed like he flipped it more for the sound effects of metal hitting metal, but apparently a poster caught his eye because he stopped his flipping and spread the rack open. The little boy stood mesmerized in front of an image of Britney Spears scantily clad and wrapped in a snake.
A few moments later, his mother came up the aisle and stood staring with him. The boy, taking notice of her said, “Mom, I’d like to get this poster for my room.”
The mother looked down at her son and I knew from the quirk of her lips and her raised eyebrow, he wasn’t getting the poster. “Son, if we hung that poster on your wall and Jesus came to visit, what do you think he’d say? Don’t you think he might feel embarrassed seeing a picture of an almost naked woman hanging on your wall?”
Without missing a beat, the little boy looked at his mom and said, “Embarrassed? Heck no! Jesus would say, ‘Wow! I do good work.’”
Out of the mouths of babes.
Both instances, while humorous, left me feeling uncomfortable. The mothers used an outside, judgmental force to try and guilt their children into compliance. Using Jesus as judgment rather than as the loving, benevolent God I grew up with rankled me, but that’s a topic for another letter. In these instances the mothers could have referenced the kids’ fathers or grandparents. It wouldn’t have mattered. By referencing an outside source, the mothers used guilt and shame to coerce the kids into behaving. They missed an opportunity to talk to their kids about what they felt and bring about an intrinsic awareness of wrong and right. They also missed an opportunity to talk about empathy. Guilt can incite rebellion, but empathy facilitates kindness.
I know as both a mother and teacher I’ve made many mistakes. Hindsight is 20/20. I hope in moving forward, I remember these lessons and can put my frustration with my kids aside and find moments to teach empathy, to provide opportunities for them to identify their feelings, and find healthy ways to express and deal with them.
What might the world be like if we could all put empathy and kindness before anger and guilt?
To read more of Elaina’s letters, click on Elaina!