My five-year old was giving me the run-down of his day at Pre-K. He was animated as he told me about a couple of the kids who got to pick pencils from a box as a prize for…something. The details were a little fuzzy. With a bit of probing I managed to figure out it had something to do with the school’s upcoming jog-a-thon.
Admittedly, I didn’t read the papers that were sent home. After tearing the house apart I found them – in the recycle bin, of course. I glanced over the fundraising guidelines. The kids who got to pick a pencil had raised $50 for the jog-a-thon.
“Mommy, can I pick a pencil from the bin?” he asked excitedly.
“No, sweetie, I’m sorry. You would need to bring $50, and I’m not going to give you $50 just so you can get a pencil.”
His expectant face fell. I could see the disappointment in his eyes as he turned his gaze to the floor and slowly left the living room. Not long after, we heard sobs and wails coming from his bedroom.
Now, these were not the throes of a temper tantrum that, while infuriating, keep you from giving in because you know it’s just a battle of wills. Instead, these were the tears of a little boy whose heart had been genuinely broken to its core. As silly as the situation seemed, in that moment it was the greatest desire of his little heart. And it broke my heart, too.
I couldn’t deal with it at that moment. My husband went in to Conlan’s room to check on him.
“I can use $50 from my piggy bank,” he suggested through his tears.
“No, you can’t. I’m sorry. That’s too much money for a pencil, and we will not let you do that.”
“But the pencils are sparkly and golden! And other kids got to get pencils! It’s not fair!” he wailed. More sobbing.
I took a deep breath, said a quick prayer, and headed in to take my turn on this newest parenting adventure.
He was curled up on his bed, tears streaming down his face, and he fell into my arms as soon as I got near. He cried on my shoulder as I tried my best to calm him down.
A few moments passed. The sobbing eased.
“Conlan, I need you to listen to me,” I began. “Can you do that?”
“I know you really want a pencil. And I understand that they are pretty and sparkly. But $50 is a lot of money, and I am not going to give you money for the jog-a-thon just so you can get a pencil.”
I saw his eyes tear up, but he held it together.
And thus began a lengthy conversation with my five-year-old. I explained how many pencils he could buy at the store with $50. I offered to take him to the store over the weekend so he could buy a pencil with his own money. We talked about how it is good to give money to people and organizations that need it, but giving money only so that we can get something back in return is not the right reason for giving. He asked how we get money, and I told him we earn it by working. I told him that there would always be things that we want and can’t have, things that other people get to do that we don’t, and that we need to be thankful for the things that we do have instead of focusing on the things that we don’t. And I explained that life would be full of disappointments.
So many lessons, such a little person.
The conversation ended about as well as it could have. I told him I would give him money to give to his school for the jog-a-thon (though not $50), he took a couple of bucks out of his piggy bank to give as well, and though I know he was still disappointed, his heart was no longer broken and the tears ended.
As silly as the situation was that set off the whole series of events, it was the hardest moment of my parenting career to date. I had never seen my little boy so sad. To be honest, my first reaction was anger and frustration. Why would the school drag preschool kids into this anyway? It’s awfully manipulative to motivate these little kids with prizes and peer pressure. They’re too young to get it, and it’s unfair that now we get to deal with the repercussions.
But then a little voice popped into my head.
If you don’t start to teach him now, then when? Will he learn contentment when he’s 7? 12? 16? 34?
We’ve been intentionally bringing up our boy to learn gratitude since we started parenting him. He hears “no” often enough. None of the lessons he heard were new, but this was the first time that they had all been wrapped up so tightly with the emotions of his little heart that we had been seriously tested in sticking to our guns. It broke our hearts that we were breaking his.
But now that it’s over, I’m thankful. I’m thankful that we turned his heartbreak into a lesson because, though it’s hard, the learning is easier when he’s five. Learning contentment will be an ongoing process, but I’m glad we’re starting it now. Because the lessons are only going to get tougher from here on out – and the stakes are going to be much bigger than a sparkly golden pencil.
What’s the toughest lesson you’ve had to help your kids learn?