Yesterday evening, I received a message from a community member stating that my 8-year-old son teased and mocked another child while playing on the basketball court of our kibbutz. Apparently, my child’s harassment was so harsh and extreme that it led his friend to run home in tears.
As a mother who strives to teach and model to her children the importance of treating others the way they would want to be treated, I was shocked and embarrassed to receive such a message. I immediately went on the attack.
“What happened?” I asked my son.
Allegedly, while my son was riding his bike on the basketball court, his friend showed up, dressed as a girl (high heels and all) and was paraded around by his sister and her friends.
Apparently, everyone thought the sight was hilarious, except for my son.
Between words of ridicule and mockery, my son made attempts to strip his friend of his costume, which ostensibly was the straw that broke the camel’s back and made the boy run home mortified and embarrassed.
When my son relayed the story to me, I was stunned.
How could he?
This is not how I raised my son!
What kind of values are those?
Meanwhile, my son sat speechless and full of self-humiliation.
He realized what transpired was a wrong doing, but didn’t make a move to say anything. He probably sat in fear with what my next move would be as I loudly reprimanded him.
And then it struck me: How was I going to get him to perform the mitzvah of asking for forgiveness? I immediately started doing these five steps:
Reprimanding my child wasn’t helping him one iota. With my husband’s encouragement, my son went to sleep without any resolution, and I told him we’d regroup the next day. In the morning, he woke up to paper and colored pencils on the breakfast table. He knew exactly what they were for. Without any prompting, he sat down to do the “work” of teshuvah and asking for forgiveness. “Ema, can you help me, please?” Taking that pause to regroup and reflect was the necessary first step in this important process of asking for forgiveness.
2. Help Them TELL Their Emotion
I asked my son what he was feeling when he saw his friend dressed up like a girl. He responded, “Well, it wasn’t Purim, so it was kind of weird to see him dressed like that.” We agreed that the word “uncomfortable” would fit a description of his emotion. I reminded my son that having emotions is normal. We all have emotions and even I would have felt uncomfortable if I were to see a friend of mine dressed as another gender out of the blue. Identifying with his emotion helped my son accept that his feelings were not “bad.”
3. UNCOVER Their Beliefs
I prompted my son to reflect upon what he was thinking when he saw his friend dressed as a girl. At this point, my son started to write a note to his friend, explaining how it was a “normal” day on the basketball court when his friend showed up dressed as a girl. He wrote that his friend looked silly and that he believed his behavior warranted him to laugh at his friend. Reflecting upon this, my son realized his behavior (based on his limiting beliefs) wasn’t true or acceptable.
4. Help Them CONSIDER a New Perspective
How else could my child have responded? My son considered he could have laughed with his friend, rather than at him. He also considered ignoring him or just asking him what this was all about. Reminding him the damage had already been done, I asked him what could be done at this point. Without a blink of an eye, he continued his note, “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”
5. Teaching Them Self-Forgiveness
The purpose of processing through this situation was to help my son reach a place where he would have the tools to perform the mitzvah of asking for forgiveness from his friend. Yet, I knew if I didn’t remind my child that having emotions is normal, he probably would go on feeling shame or guilt for having gotten stuck here in the first place. My child isn’t “bad.” He made a bad choice based on the emotion he was feeling. And I want my children to remember that. So, I suggested to my son to ask forgiveness from himself. And although he looked at my quizzically at first, he understood. He did something inappropriate, but by asking forgiveness from himself, he knew he could move on without feeling stuck on disgrace or anger at himself.
It takes a lot to ask for forgiveness. It means putting your ego aside and allowing yourself to be vulnerable. I told my son that most adults aren’t capable of doing the work he did today because they are typically holding onto something they have to give up, rather than seeing what they can gain from admitting they were wrong.
May we all merit, in the coming year, to be able to ask for forgiveness, forgive ourselves and others, and guide our children to do the same—from generation to generation!