By Joy Miyake
When my son was 3, he had a phase when he would throw his toys (usually the hard plastic ones) at his parents when he was angry or unhappy about something. The smallest thing could trigger it and his tantrum would ensue. Of course, as a mom, I understood that part of this behavior had to do with him being 3 and frustrated at his lack of ability to communicate and express himself. So in some ways, this behavior was understandable. However, as parents, we also understood that it is our responsibility to mold his character and habits. We couldn’t let this slide, especially if this was to lead to a development of a bad habit or sour relationship with parents.
One day, our son threw a toy truck at his father. It probably started as play-wrestling but something along the way didn’t go the way he planned. My husband and I talked about this ahead of time and decided that we need to confront him about this and at the very least get him to say sorry – to let him know that this behavior is not encouraged in our home and something he needs to apologize for. By the way, another thing about my son. He hated saying, “Sorry”. It was like saying the word would physically hurt him or end the world for him. In a way, he understood the gravity of the word and didn’t use it mindlessly. But he definitely wasn’t using it as much as he should have.
Dad first attempted to converse with our son about not throwing hard objects at people and saying sorry. The boy screamed, cried and stormed off to another room. Mom’s turn. I walked over to him and first gave him a hug since he was crying. Once he calmed down, I started the same narrative that dad began – throwing cars at people is not good; he needs to say sorry. He started to show resistance. I continued to explain.
At the time, I was still a first-time mom with little disciplining experience. First, I tried to appeal to his emotions. I told him that dad was sad. He made dad sad and that is why he needs to go over to dad and say sorry to him. I thought my logic was simple enough, but I underestimated my 3-year-old’s intellect and desperation for escape. My son does a quick calculation in his head and uses my logic against me, “Well you and dad made me sad and made me cry by telling me to say sorry, so you need to say sorry to me, too.” Oooookay… I paused. Wasn’t expecting that. It got me thinking for a bit. I knew that he was wrong, but why was he wrong? As simple as this situation was, it forced on me an important revisiting of my values and beliefs.
After a moment of introspection, I returned with a different approach. I told my son about the importance of knowing what is right and what is wrong. I explained that we have a goal in life which is to be children of God, which in turn means people who do the right thing. That means we need to know what is right and wrong. And mom and dad’s job is to teach you what is right and what is wrong because no one is born knowing everything. So now, mom and dad are teaching you that throwing hard objects at people, especially your parents, is wrong. And you need to say sorry to dad. Sometimes doing the right thing is hard. Sometimes we don’t want to do the right thing, but we still need to do it. That’s how we become better as people.
This was the gist of what I explained to my 3-year-old son. How much of that did he understand? Only God knows. But he pondered for some time. He wasn’t crying anymore. He may have expressed to me once or twice more how he really, REALLY didn’t want to say sorry. I told him I understood him and how hard it is for him, but he still needs to say it. At that moment, it wasn’t about what he wanted or who was sad. It was about what is right and wrong.
A few moments have passed but my son silently went back to where he fought with dad and said, “Sorry.” Not only that, but he said, “Sorry for throwing a truck at you.” Dad and I did a silent victory jig in awe after he walked away to play, now his heart completely free. I was worried that my sternness would leave a bitter aftertaste, but my son looked like he hadn’t a care in the world.
This moment taught me a lot about the importance of teaching right and wrong to our children. Yes, emotions can be of benefit as well, especially if it allows us to sympathize or empathize with others. Emotions are powerful indicators that we should not ignore, but unfortunately, they can be easily manipulated, and that is dangerous. How many adults now will demand that their needs be met because of their feelings and emotions while ignoring what is right, truthful, and good? These first steps in learning right and wrong can shape their worldview and outlook in life as adults, so the parents’ role in guiding these discussions and moments is crucial. I like to think of it as a mandatory refresher on basics for parents. Nothing like a toddler who talks back to get you thinking about these things more deeply. I’m sure it only gets even more exciting as they grow older and smarter.