Sunday, November 06, 2011

Truth & Reconciliation

It’s healed now, but last week Valerie bit Gabriel so hard he had a ring-shaped bruise on his arm with two little red scabs from her canines.

They had been playing happily together in his room, with V in the crib and G next to it, throwing a stuffed animal to each other, so I went to the other room to get something (probably more coffee). Shortly after that I heard escalating shouting and shrieking, so I hurried back. I rounded the corner into the room and saw Gabriel red-faced next to the suitcase we use as a toy box, tears streaming down his face – the kind of crying little kids do when their whole body is completely given over to the expression of hurt.

“WHAT HAPPENED?” I asked Valerie as I swooped him up.

“Panther bit Gabriel!”

In case I hadn’t understood, Gabriel flung out his arm, pointing an accusing finger at his sister, then mimed biting his hands, still sobbing all the while.

“NO, Panther! Do NOT bite Gabriel!” She burst into tears and ran to me; I may have hesitated a second, but then I pulled her onto my lap next to him, mostly because she seemed so remorseful. I tried to look for bite marks on his hands while I began to nurse him.

I’m going to break from the story here to comment that it’s often hard for me to know, in those moments, what to prioritize – comforting the injured child, or disciplining the transgressor? I know that discipline is most effective when immediate, but it seems particularly cruel to make the injured child wait for comfort while the other one is being put in time-out or whatever. I can’t figure out how to do both at once, because I feel like I need to give each task my whole attention. In this situation, I felt like my verbal correction had been strong enough (based on how she reacted to it) that I didn’t need to do anything else, so my next move was to try to engineer reconciliation.

“Why? Why did you bite him? That was very bad, Panther.”

“Don’t want it open! Want it CLOSED!” [indicating the toy box/suitcase]

“Well, he’s too little to understand, honey. You have to be patient with him. And NOT BITE.” I still hadn’t found any bite marks, by the way. “Where did you bite him?”

“On his elbow.”

Sure enough, his sleeve was wet, and I gasped as I pulled it up, to see the deep dents in his chubby little arm, and the two scratches where she’d actually broken the skin. She’d moved off my lap and onto a pillow on the floor, but I held up his arm to show her.

“Panther, you need to tell Gabriel you’re sorry.”

“I sowwy!”

I have to admit I was kind of stunned – I believe this is the first time, EVER, she has actually said she was sorry – and she genuinely seemed to mean it. I read somewhere that it’s better to ask a child to make reparations than to just teach them that simply saying “sorry” makes everything all better; kids are canny, and they sometimes take this to mean that they can get away with anything as long as they plan to say “sorry” afterward. So then I said, “Can you come give him a little kiss?” And she did; she who is beyond shy about overtly demonstrating affection, came and kissed her brother's hands, his soft head.

(edited to add): I also asked her a little while later, while I was still nursing him - "How do you feel about biting Gabriel?" And she said "Very sad," which was sweet.

So that was our family Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Victim and aggressor each had their moment to tell their story, there was confession, there was forgiveness. Ubuntu begins at home.


ben wideman said...

Ah, the TRC. Glad to hear it is working in your home! And thanks for stirring up memories of our time in SA.

Rachel said...

I think it's tough when siblings fight. I'm glad Gabriel is doing better now.

Rachel said...

I think it's tough when siblings fight. I'm glad Gabriel is doing better now.