We were having a tricky morning. My husband was away on a work trip so I was trying to navigate the morning routine chaos to get the kids dressed, fed, packed, brushed, shoed, and at school on time solo. Micah (6) had woken up late, which meant even less time to get all of those must-dos done, and was even more whiny than usual. His cereal bar broke in two coming out of the package and he became a puddle of tears.
I was using all of my good parenting strategies to help him self-regulate and calm his body by taking deep breaths. We were doing one we call “the flower and the rocket” where I hold my fist up pretending I have a bouquet of flowers for him to smell and then hold up my index finder that magically turns into a rocket that he has to “launch” by blowing really hard. The rocket doesn’t go very high or far at first and he’s motivated to get it higher by taking even bigger inhales and even bigger exhales. By the third breath, he’s usually smiling and laughing, and we’re back to equilibrium by the fifth.
I decided to make it extra silly this particular morning and say that he had to launch the rocket to go all the way over to his brother, Noah (9), who was sitting on the couch on the other side of the room. While Micah upped his breath game to fuel the rocket, Noah upped his big brother game and walked into another room. Once Micah launched the fifth rocket, I followed Noah into the other room with my index finger flying behind him seeking a place to land on the intended target.
Noah slammed the door on my finger and my nail immediately started turning purple. I’m not including a picture here so you’ll just have to trust me.
It’s a minor miracle that the only four-letter word I screamed was “NOAH!”
I was pretty sure it was not broken, but I was in serious pain and sobbed for a few minutes in my own puddle of tears while the kids just watched me. Noah kept asking, “Are you OK, Mommy? Mommy, are you OK?” I couldn’t answer at first as no words were forming in my brain, but eventually calmed down enough to tell him I was OK and that I knew it was an accident, but that it still really hurt.
“I’m sorry that you got hurt, but it’s really not my fault,” he explained. “You shouldn’t have been playing a silly game and I wanted to have privacy which is why I walked away. Also, it’s Micah’s fault because he was having a meltdown earlier and none of this would have happened if he wasn’t upset over the cereal bar.”
Even in my state of heightened emotion, I noticed how hard it was for him to accept responsibility for the impact.
I asked if I could have a hug so we could repair the rupture (my only other parenting ninja move). He obliged. I got a pack of frozen peas from the freezer and sat with it on my hand while the three of us tried to move through the rest of the morning without further incident.
I dropped off the kids at school and transitioned into the rest of my day, but found that it was hard to focus. Even when the shooting pain downgraded to significant discomfort with the help of ibuprofen, I was reminded about the injury every time I used my right index finger, which, as it turns out, was a lot. I thought about it when shampooing my hair, getting dressed, and making my breakfast. I thought about it when writing an email, holding a pen, and dialing a phone number. I thought about it when washing my hands, checking the mailbox, or opening a can of seltzer. I thought about it when I tried to be engaged with an online professional development workshop later that afternoon while resting my purple finger under a frozen bag of veggies (peas and carrots this time) just off the screen. I thought about it when I grabbed my keys, tied my shoes, set the alarm, and popped another round of ibuprofen before heading out to pick up the kids from school.
When I got to the school, I gave both of the boys hugs and asked about their days. They told me all about the carnival they had as a special activity that afternoon and vied for my attention as siblings do by talking over each other to share out details. By the time we got to the car, I noticed I had a buzzing in my chest and was feeling quite annoyed.
“Noah, are you even going to ask about how my finger is feeling?”
The consequence of our interaction in that fraction of a second was something I had been consumed by all day. It had affected my mood, my focus, my productivity. Mind, body, spirit, none of it was immune. I was quite aware of the dark purple hue my nail had turned during the past few hours and I could barely do anything without wincing when my finger even gently brushed up against something. He had floated through his day as though nothing had happened; it had barely registered as a blip for him. Huh, must be nice.
I was glad that he wasn’t feeling shame about causing me pain, but, if I’m really being honest, I wanted him to feel a little remorseful and maybe the slightest bit distraught. He didn’t. He had moved on, and it really pissed me off.
And, then it hit me: intent versus impact.
When I facilitate a workshop, training, or retreat with a team, one of the first things we do is identify group commitments. These are the guidelines and parameters that all the participants agree to follow for the duration of the experience so that we can create an environment that is more conducive to openness and engagement. Without fail, someone will suggest we add “assume positive intent” to the list and I ask them if I may offer an amendment: “assume positive intent AND take responsibility for your impact.” This is always met with lots of nodding heads, especially by the people of color in the room. We’re all going to make mistakes, that’s part of the deal of being human, and how we respond to those mistakes says a lot about our character and ability to navigate living and working in connection with others.
I not only assume that Noah did not mean to cause harm, I know it for sure. We were being silly and playful before things came to a screeching halt (the screeching was me).
But, he did and it hurt. A lot. Fortunately, the injury wasn’t serious enough to merit a trip to the emergency room and I don’t think there will be any long-term consequences, but it’s still sore and discolored a few days later and I imagine the discomfort will continue to linger for a lot longer. When he was two and *accidentally* lacerated my cornea (that’s a story for another day), he was not able to comprehend what had transpired. Now he’s almost ten and mature enough to understand that just because he didn’t mean to cause harm doesn’t absolve him from taking any sort of personal accountability. In fact, not being sincere in his apology literally added insult to my injury.
This feels particularly important for me to talk about with him now because one day he will be a grown-up and, more specifically, a white man, who may think because of the insidious way privilege operates in this country that it’s never his fault. When given feedback that his words or actions offended or harmed someone, he may even be inclined to blame them for being too sensitive (“it was just a joke!”) or not understanding what he meant (“you took that out of context!”) or any number of things that people do to deflect responsibility which only further perpetuates the harm. Instead, what I hope this experience has taught him to do when he inadvertently and inevitably hurts someone in the future is to make a sincere apology to the person or people impacted, ask if there is anything he can do to rectify the situation, and then genuinely commit to doing it better next time.
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