Tell Me What I Don’t Want to Hear

It took a broken glass panel to make me realise I should be grateful when kids admit their mistakes

tree8ONCE, I got a call from my 16-year-old son as I was driving home. ‘Dad,’ he said, ‘I broke one of the glass panels of the sliding doors.’ He was playing hockey, he said. I hung up abruptly, furious with him as he had been warned many times about this happening.

Every time I caught him hitting the hockey ball against the 17cm-high concrete step on which the glass-panelled doors sat, he would stop but not before giving me the look which said – Dad, my hockey skills are better than you think.

When I got home, I had cooled down enough to focus more on getting the glass panel fixed. The hole, if the shards were removed, was big enough for a person to crawl through. I called the company which made my doors about 12 years ago. It was going to cost $100 to fix.

Shaun stood by sheepishly, his hockey stick on the floor nearby. He had broken the rules, broken a glass panel and his hockey needed work. He agreed he should pay for the damage from his allowance. But he asked for an easy payment scheme. I agreed to instalments.

‘But you are not going to pay me 50 cents a month until you grow old,’  I told him. ‘I want you to feel pain.’  He did not argue. While I was not at all happy with him over what had happened, I was glad he decided to tell me about the incident.

A few years ago, when the children were younger, they tended to see if they could get away with it. Quite often, they did. I remember the time I nearly fell through the seat of one of the chairs. The cane webbing seat had completely given way. A strategically placed cushion covered the hole. Someone had to stand on it for the cane to snap.

No one owned up to it. They insisted: ‘Grandma did it. She always sits on that chair.’

On another occasion, a piece of pottery in my bathroom fell apart when I touched it. The culprit had meticulously fitted the pieces back into place only for it to fall apart at the slightest touch by the next unsuspecting person.

How one of my socks landed up in the ceiling light is another mystery that remains unsolved. My Indonesian maid then tried on many occasions to tell me it was useless interrogating the children. She would laugh and say: ‘Sir, I tell you it is a hantu (Malay for ghost).’

I explained to my children that it was important to own up to these things because, sometimes, they fail to see the consequences of an incident. I related to them the time when, as a curious seven-year-old with a penchant for science experiments, I had dipped a clinical thermometer into a pot in which the rice was cooking. There was a slight pop sound and I was left with only half the glass thermometer in my hand.

My parents were out then and I tried to salvage the situation. I threw away the piece of glass in my hand and tried to use a strainer to retrieve the broken pieces of glass in the pot. No such luck. I was terrified. My Dad was one of those strict ‘whack first, talk later’ fathers. I kept quiet about what had happened until my Mum took the pot to dish out the rice. I was afraid my family members would swallow the glass fragments.

Strangely, my Dad was quite subdued in his reaction. I think he must have been grateful that his life had been spared. Forget the glass, the mercury would have killed the whole family, he said. I honestly had no idea what mercury was then.

The temptation to not want to own up is natural. That is always a concern. They sometimes fail to see the gravity of an offence. Also, they forget that parents would do their utmost to help.

But as my kids grew older, I increasingly felt the need for them to come back to my wife and me whenever they got into trouble. There was a fear that the trouble they could potentially get into as a teen is usually more serious.

Several days after the glass-shattering incident, I asked Shaun what would be a big reason for him to tell me he had done something wrong. He replied – if he felt I could help fix the problem. A few days later, I had a chat with a few of his friends who were over at my place, and asked them the same question.

Some of the factors they cited: Would they be able to get away with it, if they can’t they would own up. Was it an accident, like losing a mobile phone or breaking something, or was it intentional, like sneaking out when under curfew.

Another boy mentioned that if the punishment was commensurate with the wrongdoing, he was more likely to own up. Several times, ‘mood of my parents’ was mentioned. But like Shaun had told me a few days earlier,  they too said that a big incentive would be if they felt their parents would help them clear the mess after meting out the punishment.

Throughout our chat, I could sense how they were torn between wanting to come clean with their parents and fearing that their parents would overreact, which could persuade them to take their chances and go it alone.

My daughter Natasha recalled an incident when she told me she had copied someone else’s answers during a class test. She said I made it clear to her that it was wrong and that it should never happen again and that was it. She added that she distinctly remembers telling herself that she should speak to me whenever she ran into trouble.

I took away one big lesson from that whole shattering incident: that I should be grateful when my kids come up to me and tell me about some wrong they had done and that my response should always be – I’m so glad you told me what I didn’t want to hear.

About The Author: Mathew Pereira, formerly Sports Editor of The Straits Times, and a member of the Fathers Action Network (FAN). Between 2004 and 2008, he wrote several columns which talked about his personal experience of fatherhood. This piece was one of many in his collection of fatherhood stories.

First published on 31-01-2012.


Categories: Dad's Journey, Matthew Pereira

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