Humbly Learning to Solve a Problem

When I asked my fourth-grader about her school day, she said, "I'll tell you about it when we get home." Tears pooled in her blue eyes, and her lower lip quivered, so I figured either she needed time to figure out how to explain a pile of unfinished work or else she was in trouble.

She was in trouble.

Believe it or not, I was relieved. A stack of unfinished work means two or three hours of homework, including whining and complaining on the part of my daughter and at least one full-blown lecture on responsibility from me. Who needs it?

Besides, I'm not one of those parents who harbors the illusion that my children are always well-behaved, nor do I think this necessarily would be a good thing. We learn best from our mistakes, after all, so I think it's important for my children occasionally to rediscover the relationship between poor choices and unpleasant consequences.

How else can a parent be proved right about warnings such as, "Sword-fighting with rulers is a great way for someone to get hurt."

Unfortunately (or maybe it was fortunate), Amy's transgression was more complicated than classroom horseplay.

Here's what happened: Amy and a classmate got into a conflict over the ownership of a certain blue marker. Amy insisted she owned the marker and had lent it to her friend. His version had the blue marker in his desk the whole time.

"But that's impossible," Amy wailed as she told me the story. "I had a blue marker that exact color in my desk, and now it's gone."

I resist the urge to be sidetracked into a discussion of the widespread availability of blue markers. Instead, I ask Amy how she handled the situation.

"I told him he stole my marker and to give it back."

Ouch. Not exactly a great example of due process.

"So then what happened?" I figure it's best to get the entire story before I start in with the life lesson.

"Then this girl started saying, 'Amy, just let it go. It's not important.' "

Seems reasonable. "And then?" I probe.

"Then I sort of pushed her and told her to mind her own business."

Obviously I need to get Amy a children's edition of the classic self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People.

The rest of the episode unfolds in characteristic ambiguity. Amy pushes; the girl tells on her; Amy is reprimanded by the teacher. Feeling misunderstood and cheated out of a blue marker, she kicks someone (the girl? the thief? I'm not sure) under the desk. She feels guilty, but she's still righteously indignant about the ownership of the marker.

The folks at Crayola must love stories like these.

Amy tells me the teacher has required her to issue a written apology for shoving the would-be peacemaker, which my daughter thinks is overkill because she already said she was sorry.

I think it's probably warranted because I'm betting her verbal apology had all the sincerity of a spit in the eye.

Amy saddles up to the computer to type her message. This is what it says:

"I'm sorry for what happened today. I didn't mean to shove you. But next time could you please keep your unnecessary comments to yourself? It really doesn't help when you stick your nose in to other people's business."


I send Amy to the kitchen to do her homework, leaving the note of "apology" on the desk for later.

After dinner, I sit down with her for some coaching on the fine art of making amends.

"Amy, I think there's a problem with your note," I say.

"But mom, she does this all the time, and it's really annoying." Again with the wailing.

How to explain that in life, there are people who stick their noses in where they don't belong and even people who "borrow" markers and don't return them. Nonetheless, you can't respond by becoming a person whose behavior can best be described as "thuglike."

We brainstorm about all the ways she could have responded to the situation, including how she might have handled the missing marker without painting her pal into a washable blue corner, leaving him no choice but to defend his honor or admit to having sticky fingers.

Amy decides that the next time she suspects someone of lifting her school supplies, she'll just talk to the teacher.

More important, I require that she rewrite the letter. This time it says:

"I'm very sorry about what happened at school today. I should not have shoved you. Please forgive me. You are good at helping people solve problems. But next time, could you please let me handle my problem on my own?"

It's slightly more accountable, somewhat less defensive. Initially, I declared the apology could be only that — a confession that she had done wrong and a request for forgiveness.

However, Amy's second version also included a more constructive way to handle the issue of an intrusive third party.

All in all, if she got that saying you're sorry is an act of humility, she learned something worthwhile.

As for the blue marker, we decided the best thing to do was to replenish the school supplies. Given that we're starting a new semester, it seemed like fortuitous timing to restock the pencil case.

This time, we're putting her name on each and every marker, just in case one gets lost.

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