Repairing Trust and the Chance to Surprise

In the previous post, there was a school library book that had a huge tear down the middle of a page when my 6 year old daughter and her brother fought over it. I repaired the page as best as I could with glue. She was to bring the book to the library the next day, show it to the library teacher and ask what we should do. She rehearsed with her dad what to say to the library teacher, learning such expressions as Jitsu wa… a softener that means To tell you the truth…

It has been a week and she still has not talked to the library teacher.

First, she said the library teacher was not at the library when she went. The 6th grade students in charge didn’t know what to do with the torn page so they just received the book. The next day, she said they only had 4 periods instead of 5 so there was no time to go to the library. The day after that, she said her homeroom teacher did not allow her to go to the library as they had important matters to discuss regarding their upcoming sports day.

My husband and I sat her down and said that she must speak to the library teacher the following day. If she’s not at the library, she has to go ask the other teachers where she is and go to her. Otherwise, we will have to do something more drastic.

The next day as we were walking home from her after-school program, she said, “The library teacher said we have to pay for the book.”

“How much?”

“I don’t know. She didn’t say. She just said we had to pay.”

“Okay, can you ask tomorrow how much we have to pay? Have her write it on a sheet of paper, okay?”

When we got home, and after she put down her stuff, she said, “We don’t have to pay for the book. The library teacher said we don’t have to pay for it.”

From the standpoint of development psychology, I was absolutely fascinated by how we learn to craft an untruth. Her efforts were almost charming.

When my husband came home, he sat her down and they had a long talk. He said that she should have told her homeroom teacher instead of letting it drag on. They again rehearsed how to tell the homeroom teacher about the torn page. I knew for sure there would be no problem this time.

The next day, I asked what her homeroom teacher said about the book.

“She just said, okay.”

“That’s it? You told her about the book right?”

“Yes I did.”

“You know your homeroom teacher is coming tomorrow for the home visit. I can ask her tomorrow if you told her about the book. You did tell her right?”

“I did.”

The next day, her homeroom teacher came while my daughter was still in the after school program. My daughter did not mention anything about a torn page. The teacher told me that there really is no penalty for torn pages but they would appreciate knowing about it so they can repair it with tape if needed.

“Your teacher said you didn’t tell her about the book.”

“I did. I said to her I need to go to the library about a book and she said okay.”

Again putting on my development psychology lenses, I was curious how she learned to omit critical information and tread that fine line between the truth and untruth.

Mr. Rogers said, “One of the first things a child learns in a healthy family is trust.” And my six year old has broken it. What is a parent to do when confronted with this situation? I wish I could ask Mr. Rogers.

When my husband came home, we asked our daughter to play in the next room (really, it wasn’t a room but just an adjoining space) while we discussed the issue. She could very well hear what we were saying and see how serious the matter was. She played quietly as she half listened to us. We didn’t mind this. The only reason we asked her and her brother to sit in the next room so that we would not be interrupted. It was probably good for her to see our own struggle and process  — that we don’t always have it right or together all the time.

The book and its value was no longer the issue. The homeroom teacher already said that it was not a problem and nothing needs to be paid. Our daughter, however, broke our trust. She promised to talk to the teacher and we trusted her word.

“But don’t we all lie? Lying is an act of self-preservation. Tell me you haven’t lied in the past 24 hours. There are some things that people don’t need to hear, right?”

“Yes, that’s true, but in this case, we’re her parents and we are the people she should be able to talk to and tell important things. She broke our trust and she needs to learn that there are consequences to her choices. I say we give her 5 hours timeout spread out 3 times,” my husband suggested.

“What? Isn’t that a bit much?”

“It has to involve something important to her. It’s strange but I feel that when a punishment hurts — when something important is withheld, I think parents are respected more.”

We settled on three 30-minute timeouts.  The longest she has ever sat at timeout before this was maybe 10 minutes.

We called her back. She was solemn. We talked about having our trust broken. She did not understand so we had to explain what this meant. When you trust someone, you feel safe and secure. A baby feels safe in her mommy’s arms because she knows she’s not going to be dropped. The baby trusts her mommy. If the mommy drops the baby, the baby might be afraid that she will be dropped again. Because you broke our trust, it’s going to be a bit harder to believe that what you tell us next time is the real thing — that’s the meaning of having our trust broken. We explained that she has to do three 30-minute timeouts spread over 3 days and she can choose when she wants to do each stretch. She can only bring a pencil and a paper and write how she can repair our trust. Her brother is not allowed to hover in the vicinity while she’s serving timeout. She nodded. I was surprised by how easily she accepted her punishment. No crying. No whining. No bargaining. Without any prompting, she said sorry to me and to my husband about not telling us the ‘real thing.’

The next day, she decided to serve her first timeout as soon as she came back home from school and had her snacks. “I can’t write in English Mommy.” Japanese is fine, I told her. I had zero expectations that she would write anything meaningful and was expecting the page to be filled with doodles. And that was fine with us. The point was to serve the timeout as we agreed.

I set the timer for 30 minutes. She sat at the foot of the stairs busy writing. Her brother was busy reading a book. I was the antsy one, watching the clock, wondering that maybe we should have just given a 15 minute timeout. Thirty minutes seemed way too long. Twenty minutes passed by and I did not hear so much as a peep from her. When 25.5  minutes have passed, she asked, “How much longer?” I said about 4 minutes or so. “Good,” she said, “I’m almost done.”

The alarm went off and she walked into the kitchen proudly holding up her sheet of paper. “I didn’t have much space so maybe tomorrow I will bring two sheets.” She pointed to the girl she had drawn on the corner of the paper: “This is me crying”. She wrote a lot of stuff in Japanese and I said we would read it when her daddy comes home.

My husband comes home and she again, proudly shows her sheet of paper.

“Why don’t you read it to us?,” my husband says.

She reads. By the third line, my husband and I looked at each other in amazement and we both had tears at the corner of our eyes. This was completely unexpected. Our six-year old daughter wrote about remembering to talk to us and to her teacher and telling us the truth. She was at once shy and beaming after reading her piece.

Had we cushioned her from the harsh realities of consequences, we would have denied her the opportunity to discover (with pride and satisfaction) that she has within herself what she needs to cope with a problem.  We would also have robbed her the chance to surprise us and our assumptions about what she can and cannot do, about what she can and cannot grasp.


6 responses to “Repairing Trust and the Chance to Surprise

  1. That was our “Time out” plan as well, and it worked quite well. With a plan that covers all points of concern, probably the other two sessions are not necessary.

  2. From what you wrote, I feel that you set your daughter a huge challenge. I can’t imagine going and talking to a teacher at my primary school had me and my brother together damaged some piece of school property like a book, while at home. I think I would have expected my Mum be one to speak to the teacher, even back in the 1970s when parents were much less directly involved in school life than they seem to be these days…

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