My four-year-old Aspen spilled half a jug of juice on the table, chairs, floor, and… well… she basically made it rain in the kitchen, which if you know anything about four-year-olds, their power to spill is on par with the infinity gauntlet.
And I’ll be honest, I flipped.
I’d been upstairs installing new shelves in a closet. Her 11-year-old brother was supposed to be watching her, but he was too “focused” on his Rubik’s cube to notice his sister reenacting a scene from the Titanic in the kitchen. When I saw the mess, I said all the parenting clichés: “What were you thinking?” and “Why didn’t you ask for help?” and “Why didn’t you help her?” and “You are both going to your rooms!” and “I don’t have time for another mess!”
Tristan rolled his eyes in his typical pre-teen fashion. Aspen started to cry. I wanted to cry.
Then I noticed something. On the floor, below the table, were two dishrags soaking up juice. In Aspen’s right hand was another.
“Were you trying to clean up your mess?” I asked.
She looked up, and gave me the saddest, most tearful, little head nod I’d ever seen, her lower lip quivering.
There was no way she could’ve cleaned it up herself. She did, in fact, create more work for me when I already had a bunch of work to do that day with our house renovations. More work than I could ever finish in one day, but naturally, I felt like I needed to try. But none of that was important.
I’d actually been trying to teach her to be more independent. I’d been trying to teach her to get her own snacks when she was hungry, and to put her laundry in the basket, and to clean up her room, and to wipe her own butt, and a million other things. If she had poured that glass of juice without making a mess, I would have been impressed with her. But because she had tried to do something on her own, failed, and made a mess, the whole thing sent me over the edge.
But isn’t real life about trying new things, making mistakes, and trying again? Sure, she made a mess. But she was trying to be independent. And when she made the mess, she was trying to handle it in the best way she knew how.
Everything she did was exactly what I’d been trying to teach her about being an independent human, and there I was freaking out over spilled juice. It was a dick move. It was a contradiction.
I do this sometimes as a father. I think most parents do. We get so caught up in the mess, and the work, and the “one more thing to do” that we don’t pause for a moment and see what’s really happening. We want our children to take risks, to fall and get back up again, but when they do, and it makes more work for us, we forget that mistakes are a huge part of development.
My emotions flipped like a switch in that moment. I went from rage and woe-is-me to remorse and regret.
But then I collected myself. I took a breath. I crouched down next to Aspen (who was still crying, by the way) and put my arm around her. She stood ridged at first, her hand still holding the dishrag. I looked her in the eyes and said, “I’m sorry, kiddo. I overreacted.”
Let me be clear: I messed up with my reaction up to this moment. I’ll can own up to that. But the reality is, just like Aspen tried to pour herself a glass of juice and made a mess, I made a mess of this situation by getting angry in the moment. As parents, we are going to do this. We are going to overreact; we are going to say some things we shouldn’t. We are going to be wrong. It will happen because, just like our kids are developing into humans, we are developing into parents. What makes the difference is how we react when we do something wrong.
I apologized that day to my daughter because I owed it to her. And to be honest, I’m not sure if she accepted my apology. I’m not sure if this will become some new lesson for her on how to apologize. There are a lot of things I don’t know as a father.
But what I do know is that she loosened up after a moment, and hugged me back. Once we’d both calmed down, we got a bucket and some cleaner, and we wiped everything down. And once it was all cleaned up, I helped her get a glass of juice.