A parable of how we feel bad feelings for each other.
In a sequence of events that is not totally clear to me, because those involved in the unfolding incident were all 4 and 5 years old, my son found himself in trouble for hitting another child in his preschool classroom. The other child took a minor injury but nothing that required urgent attention, and as parents, we were all satisfied with the resolution: my son apologized, and the kid said he didn’t feel bad, jumped along on his merry old way.
What I noticed in my son, however, was a frustrated need to explain his actions, with too few words to articulate why. While we insisted he apologize to his classmate and think about the harm he caused, he gave me the characteristic glare of a person who somehow knows deep down that their actions were justified. I got a version of the story from him that went something like: this kid wasn’t being nice to this other kid, and then the teacher wanted me to let go of one of the toys, so I threw it at the mean kid and he shouldn’t have been in my way.
My son spent the ensuing couple of days in a state of remorse so profound to him that I briefly worried he would never recover. Kids have a way of emoting that feels so profound. It is hard for me to witness the pain of a child. It is impossible for me to reconcile with states causing harm upon them as adults. Like many parents, I have been obsessed with the well being of my own child of late. Not because I feel protective of it, but because I am incredulous that we get to live and thrive, while others do not. The horror inflicted on children in multiple coinciding genocides throughout the world, forces me to stare at my son as if to reassure that the virtue of life is not a pathology, but a right, a blessing, a joy.
My son’s teacher tells us that what he is going through is a very common part of emotional-psychological development. Remorse is a sign of mental maturity.
Yesterday, in his morose state, my son turned on a space heater, grabbed some gummy worms and pulled up a blanket over himself on the couch to curl up by the heater. It looked like “self care” and I was amazed. How did he know to regulate himself this way? I sat at his feet and watched him nestle, and then he said:
Mama, will you help me struggle?
I stared into his eyes barely able to contain tears, and thought about how children have to manage pain. It is so different from how adults do it. So much pain is unnecessary and unfair, but seems to be a requisite part of growing up. Of course I will help you struggle.
I’m told that today, my son articulated to his teacher that he was sad. “I’m sad today, because I miss my friend,” he said. This is a big deal because he hardly talks. We think he meant he missed the friendship with the kid he struck. I trust that whatever rift between them will repair, but they’re off on holiday and won’t see each other for another week. The teacher gave him a hug and asked if he wanted to draw how he felt. He walked to the art desk and started coloring a blank page, and I’m told that at this juncture, the rest of the class went up to him, and started drawing on the same page, alongside him, huddled, touching, providing warmth to each other as they whipped cold colors of complex emotions across a shared piece of paper.