When my younger son, Will, was three years old, I caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye. He was getting ready to do something he was not supposed to do. Rather than allow him to go through with it, I decided to intervene.
"Will," I said, calmly and clearly, "if you do that, you are going to get in trouble."
He paused but did not turn toward me. After a moment, he turned around, walked up to me and looked up into my eyes.
"What kind of trouble?" he asked.
I explained to him that it didn't matter what kind of trouble, that it would be trouble with a capital T and he would not like it.
He thought for a moment, tilted his head to the side and decided that it wasn't worth the trouble...at least not that time.
I was a little rattled. It was obvious that my three-year-old actually considered going ahead with his misbehavior if the thrill of the crime outweighed whatever consequence he had to pay.
I began to wonder if my repertoire of consequences was sufficient.
A few years, and many misdeeds later, Will had pushed his limits once too often. He was in big trouble, capital T Trouble. I remember escorting him upstairs to his room.
"You are NOT to come out of this room until I say so," I said. He climbed onto his bed and looked at me.
"I mean it!" I said. I was angry, but he didn't seem fazed by it.
I looked around. Of course he wasn't worried. His room was filled with enough toys and games to keep him occupied all afternoon.
I stalked over to a large plastic bin filled with action figures and snapped on the lid, dragging it out the door of his room and into the hallway.
Then I scooped all his stuffed animals off the top of his bed and carried them out as well, piling them on the landing.
"No books either," I said, grabbing books off his shelf and carrying them out. I had to make several trips.
By the time I had all his stuff piled in the hallway, he was looking a little more humbled.
"There," I said. "You must sit here with nothing to do but think about your actions!"
I turned and stalked out of his room, leaving the door open so I could hear him if he started moving around. I had to stop stalking when I got to the hall and had to do a little sidling past his belongings. I had barely left a foot path. No fun was going to be had in that room that day! I was going to make sure of it.
Several minutes later, I was still hovering around the foot of the staircase, straining my ears for any noises...nothing.
Had he fallen asleep? That did not seem like an effective punishment... Was he crying silently into his pillow, feeling sorry for the way he had behaved? I didn't hear any sniffling.
I made my way quietly up the stairs and peeked through the crack in the door. My six year old was lying on top of the covers, his head propped on his elbow, looking out the window at the gabled roof. What was he looking at? It was a terrible view; all he could see was the roof line and the top of the garage. I pushed the door open slowly, but he did not turn around. I let myself in and sat on the edge of his bed.
"Well," I said, " I guess you're feeling pretty bad about what happened earlier." He nodded but did not look at me. He was still staring, fixedly, out the window.
"You know," I said, "Daddy and I love you very much and that's why we have to make you sure you understand right from wrong and how to behave." He nodded, still fascinated by something outside the window.
"It makes me very sad to have to punish you this afternoon," I said. "I don't like to have you up here by your...Will, WHAT are you looking at?"
He turned around to face me.
"Take a look." He waved his hand out the window.
I peered through the curtains.
"I don't see anything interesting," I said.
"Look...right there, that leaf in the gutter. He looks just like a tiny little monkey, and he does tricks when the wind blows."
I looked closer. Sure enough, one small, twisted leaf stood upright in the gutter. Parts of the blade had broken away; and other parts had curled around the stem, making it look for the world like a tiny dancing monkey. I was mesmerized.
"He's funny, isn't he?" Will asked. He had moved closer to me, and both our faces were practically pressed against the glass. That dancing leaf monkey WAS funny.
I closed the curtains.
"...and no more looking out the window!" I said, emphatically, trying to hold onto the indignation I had felt earlier.
"Sorry, mom," he said...and, for the first time that day, he seemed sincerely sad about all that had happened.
Of course, I forgave him; and we moved his stuff back into his room later that afternoon. I couldn't resist one last look at the monkey in the gutter, though. He was still out there, dancing merrily beneath the eaves.
Will is thirteen now, and he's a good boy. Both my boys are good boys; I'm proud of them. Now that they're teenagers, my husband and I continue to struggle with finding the perfect consequence for those times when they make poor choices. Sometimes we get it right; but more often than not, we simply hope to stumble upon the one unexpected thing we can say or do that will help them realize how to correct their behavior and step back on the right path. Parenting is tough; and it's not always possible to close the curtains on temptation. I'll never forget that little dancing monkey who seemed to be mocking me and my feeble attempts to correct my son; but I have to remind myself that that troublesome monkey blew away later that night.