The other day, my wife pulled out a gargantuan container of yoghurt from the fridge. She lifted it out from the lid, which was loose. All the contents came spilling out — on her pants and blouse, and boots all over the floor.
We had a good laugh over it, and I luckily was able to capture the moment in photo.
Accidents happen. Since I met my lovely bride, she has been prone to tripping and slipping and other oopses. As her devoted protector, I stay close to her so I can catch her in the event of a possible spill — one time, when she was several months pregnant with our oldest, Cali, I saved the day, thwarting her fall after she had a close encounter with a patch of ice.
Ceci often starts the day with a sparkling white dress. By day’s end, it is a world of colors — spills and stains of many sorts that come her way through her work day as an elementary school teacher. Well, truth be told, long before she became a teacher, her pure white dresses would ‘evolve’ in the course of the day, and become more and more colorful creations. My love is prone to spills and such.
It is so lovely, so touching, and I love her the more for it.
So you can imagine how it makes my blood go cold when a parent scolds, much less physically slaps or hits, a child who spills something. It happened the other day when I was on a plane. I was in the aisle seat, with a woman in the middle, and her son, five or six years old, by the window. He looked excitedly at the window at one juncture to point at something, his elbow brushed against his drink, which spilled over. He was met with loud admonishment and a literal slap on the wrist by his mother. He was devastated, shamed.
You can bet your bottom dollar I made sure to ‘inadvertently’ spill a bit of my ginger ale on her later in the flight. I shrugged innocently with a profuse smile. I made a big show out of cleaning everything up as I muttered, “Oh, I’m so clumsy. I’m ‘Mr. Accidents Will Happen.'”
She gave me a cold stare, left it at that, cleaned up along with me.
Oh, and then, and then, later in the flight, guess who spilled her second drink — on herself no less.
I exchanged a look with her son. Oh it would have been so delicious if he’d said something — but he was too petrified, even as he gave me a knowing half smile.
Yesterday, I took 10-year-old Cali to a Japanese restaurant. We wanted just a table for ourselves, and we saw one empty, but the hostess insisted that it was taken and took us to one of those communal tables with a stove in the middle. There was no sign that said ‘Do Not Touch,’ nothing to warn that it might be turned on. Before I could utter a word, Cali, who had never been in such a place, put her hand on it. It was on, and it burned her hand — she let out a shriek to end all shrieks. It was a long and traumatic and painful day after that; but she’s okay.
What rankled me was the absolute lack of concern by the owner or any of the employees for what had happened to her; if anything, they thought it was no big deal, that she should tough it out, that it was even somewhat funny. You can bet I gave them a piece of my mind, though they were heedless. Just a parent venting over an accident that in their view was no big deal.
Not the slightest bit of empathy, no genuine concern — and yet adults are supposed to teach and model these qualities to children, according to the experts like Daniel Goleman, though the latest cognitive science studies show that it’s children who can show us older folks the way, what with their being hard-wired with these qualities.
Accidents will happen. Accidents must happen, and we must encourage kids to have those kinds of accidents that encourage exploration and discovery and that don’t do them harm.
But we must also distinguish between the innocent accidents caused by kids — I’ll never forget how a childhood friend of mine was punished mercilessly once for breaking a basement window with one errant swing of his bat or how I was punished likewise for innocently trying to insert exposed wires from an antique phone my father had purchased into an electrical outlet. I thought that’s how the thing worked. When smoke started swirling out of the outlet, well, my week went way downhill from there, and the memory to this day is painful.
My youngest daughter, three-year-old Cybele, is much like me when I was her age. She likes to know how things worked. There have been times when I’ve had to keep her from hurting herself. But I would never think in the least of punishing her for her natural curiosity; if a parent isn’t vigilant, it’s the parent’s fault, never the child’s.
While I’m on my soapbox, can we distinguish between the innocent and inevitable accidents of children (I’ve even witnessed good friends go ballistic when their child spills something, yet they get a free pass when they do the same thing) and the tragic blunderings of adults?
Here’s a bit of what I have to say on the matter in The Philosophy of Childing:
if we adults want to make sure kids grow optimally, we have to be there for them and make sure they cross the street safely, don’t trip over their shoelaces, don’t touch a hot stove, get enough sleep. This frees them up to do what they do best – explore, experiment, learn, understand, imagine, create. However, just as children are fragile in certain ways, and must be protected if they are to develop optimally, so are adults. Indeed, adults enter into social contracts (including treaties) and lots of other kinds of binding agreements to ensure they are protected from one another’s worst impulses. Humanistic advances are sporadic at best, while the constant is that adults make a mess of things, with children the ones who suffer the most as a result. Children do need to be protected, yes, but mostly from the tragic blunderings of adults.
Now, back to my daughter Cali. She had been under the weather before she burned her hand, and her day was far worse afterward — yet she did ‘soldier on’ and out of sheer desire still attended a Socrates Cafe I held in Spanish that evening as part of my Socrates Group entrepreneurial initiative.
We explored the question, “What are the best successes in life?” (Cuales son los mejores exitos en la vida?)
Near the end, Cali spoke up. There were beautiful insights throughout the hour and a half discourse, but Cali’s took the cake. Here’s a video snipped of what she said. To my bilingual daughter, from whom I learn so much each and every day, the greatest success in life is “pensar en lo demas” — to think about others, to keep others ever present as you act in the world. For her, as she went on to share, this can be done in a number of ways, such as the handmade gifts she gives and cards she makes it a practice to give to friends and family on special occasions, because of the genuine joy she sees that it gives them (little do they know just how many hours and hours goes into each of these creations).
The adults on hand were moved, and clearly some didn’t expect such a sophisticated and socially conscious response. But to Cali and most of the world’s children and youth, such a response is par for the course.
Here’s how I put it in Childing:
Cali, for her part, is determined to do what she can to make ours a world in which all hearts beat as one. Her philosophy of caring is kindred to that of Confucius (551 – 479 b.c.), the Chinese philosopher who taught that seemingly small actions – like giving cookies and flowers and a hug to a woman in crisis — has a ripple effect that changes the course of someone’s world, which changes the course of the world as a whole. It’s my experience that Cali is a pretty typical child in living by this insight of Rousseau’s: “Human beings are by nature neither kings nor nobles nor courtiers nor rich. All are born naked and poor, all are subject to the misfortunes of life, to difficulties, ills, needs, pains of all sorts.” While some are far more subject to the misfortunes of life than others, we are all a step away from humility. None of us knows when tragedy might come our way. Somehow Cali, as Rousseau puts it, “understand[s] well that the fate of these unhappy people can be [yours.]” But she also understands that she has it within her heart to make their fate happier. If this everyday child spirit of hers and most other kids rubs off on the rest of us, what a world ours will be.