She was trying to explain something to me, just exactly how she wanted me to open the cheese so that the wax held together, and I wasn’t getting it. She was getting increasingly frustrated, her voice rising. I was getting increasingly agitated, my voice rising and hardening. Eventually she was yelling at me and I was yelling right back at her not to yell at me, which always feels so stupid. So I changed tact. I summoned all kindness and patience and carefully evened my voice out. “I can’t just let you yell at me anymore. I’m going to stop listening until you stop yelling.” A threat obviously, in retrospect, though it didn’t seem so at the time. I don’t believe in threats, partly because we are incapable of upholding most of them. But there I was.

She immediately broke out into tortured sobs and I felt the regret flood in for a move I could no longer take back. She crawled under the table and wailed for several minutes before the words finally came. A pivotal moment in any mama’s life.

“You don’t love me! You don’t love me!”

There was some mad in her voice, and certainly a little drama, but so much raw emotional devastation that I wanted to cry. I came over and crouched beside the table, explaining as I have before that no matter how mad I get, or how much I don’t like the things she is doing at the time, I always, always love her. “The love is the part that doesn’t go away, ever.” I say.

But she’s too wild to hear me. If you don’t have a child like mine, you might not understand what I’m talking about. You might make the mistake of thinking I am describing a fit. It is not a fit, she has those too sometimes. These are different. I understand them because she is my daughter and the fruit did not fall far from the tree. We are sensitive. Not that we are easily thrown into oblivion– in fact we are both, in a sense, fairly stable. But that oblivion, when we do hit it, is exceptionally engulfing and terrifying. The difference is that I have always been stoic and private. I experience life and emotions on an extreme level, but I do no share that level with the world or almost anybody at all. I keep it all locked up healthily inside. My Girl on the other hand, is expressive.

At any rate, she screams at me to talk to her, then when I do, screams at me to stop talking. There is a lot of screaming, while I go back and forth between trying to calmly and undramatically reach out to her, and tending the soup on the stove (see this old post about her 2yo fits for the story of how I arrived at this “technique”). Eventually she starts to calm down and, still teary, asks to watch a movie. “Sure,” I say. “Will you come out and sit with me for a minute first?”

She hesitates, but climbs out onto my lap. “Mama,” she says, still upset but quickly deflating, “You never say ‘please’ when you’re mad!” She says this to me often. I don’t think it’s really about the please, I think it’s about the way that I get mad and then stop being kind and caring, the way she thinks a mama should be. I think that she feels upset that I am not consistently nice, not realizing that she is asking me to be inhumanly perfect.

“You’re right.” I say, “You know I honestly just forget. When we’re mad, we kind of forget how to be nice.” Which is certainly true. Ideally, as perfect people, we would hold it together even when we were mad, and all of our actions would be intentional. We would be like practice scenarios at the counselor’s office. But in real life we get mad and lose it. We are all of us imperfect, by a long shot.

I try to explain all of this to her, and suddenly I realize that the solution to human imperfection is forgiveness, and that I have to explain forgiveness to her. That the concept is essential to her right now. She needs to be able to forgive me, and to understand that I forgive her. She needs a way to deal with the budding knowledge that I am not perfect and that that’s okay, she is not perfect and that’s okay. That we get mad, and we get over it, and we have a special way out of it, a special human way that we move forward with love.

I stumble around, trying to figure out how to define forgiveness to a 5 year old. I tell her that when someone does something you don’t like and it makes you mad, forgiveness is “accepting that they aren’t perfect and loving them anyway.” To which she says, predictably, “What’s ‘accepting?'”

….Shit. Then I have a little brilliance. “When you were under the table, you were still really mad at me. And when I asked you to come out and sit with me, you kind of didn’t want to, right? ‘Cause you still felt mad? But you did anyway, you came out and let me put some love on you. That’s what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is when you came out from under the table.”

I don’t know if it worked. It’s a big concept, and probably takes time. I had honestly never even thought about it before. Like so many milestones my kids have hit that I had never thought about. And maybe she’s not even really ready yet, but it’s a start.


16 thoughts on “Forgiveness

  1. I am sorry, Shelby. I didn’t want to make you cry, but it is nice to know that you are not alone. It would have been nice to have someone to read when I was raising our kids…it was scary some times and it would have been nice to have someone to talk too. Calamity is so wise some times. Love you lots. MOM

  2. Lovely post. Thank you. It’s interesting that in the UK ‘mad’ means crazy and we tend to use only use word ‘angry’ for your word ‘mad’. But when we’re really angry, we are crazy, we’re not really in our right mind and do crazy things like shout and even hit (hopefully only when we’re little!) So I do like the word ‘mad’ for ‘angry’ and of course it is becoming more common in the UK with US films/movies etc…

    Another funny one is ‘pissed’ which means drunk in the UK. When I worked in the US as an Intern for a Senator, when I was much younger, I came into the office one morning and everyone was whispering about how ‘pissed’ our boss was (not the Senator) and that she was locked in her office. I was shocked by how unprofessional people in the US were that they could come to the office drunk! I later found out she was actually angry and was very relieved. For some reason, in the UK we say someone is ‘pissed off’ when they are angry (although this suggests only a bit angry). Again, this is interesting because when you’re angry, it is as if you are drunk – not in your right mind.

  3. I think you handled this beautifully! It’s important for these things to happen so that we have a reason to explain forgiveness and acceptance to children, and model how to be ‘not-perfect’. And I love your definitions and your modeling here. I read your post a few days ago and woke up this morning pondering the similarities and differences between a threat and introducing consequences. When does it cross from one to the other? I have thought about this often when giving my 3 year old “options” (ex: you can lie down and get covered up before I say night night or you can stand and not get covered up before I leave). I think this could be seen as either; is it in the delivery, the wording, or maybe the interpretation? I don’t know what the answer is but I think it is important that I continue to ponder…

  4. This so resonates with me, our 4 1/2 yo is of similar temperament. Forgiveness is choosing to come out from under the table, that will stay with me forever. Xx

  5. I think it is important to mind that this lesson applies to people of any age, in any scenario – home or work; love or like; work or play. This is one of the ‘fundamentals’ – put into words that really stick. I just love it.

  6. just discovered your blog…i’m printing this out to read together with my 15 yr old daughter…we so need it…with gratitude, Stef

    1. I read this when you first wrote it, but just came upon it again, and its still just as good. I don’t think I ever thought to explain forgiveness to my kids. There are a lot of concepts like this that I think we tend to dismiss explaining because they’re ‘too young’, but actually, too young is the first time to start. I think.

      1. it warms my heart to think you loyal old readers are still checking in and sifting archives, even when i haven’t given you anything new in almost a year!
        i should note that my girl is extremely emotionally complex. which makes for some doozy 5yo weeping fits. but also makes her perhaps uniquely capable of talking about stuff afterwards.

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