Yesterday morning the boys were getting dressed and I was in the kitchen pouring bowls of cereal. I called out to remind them they should wear something nice for school picture day. Jay chose a blue and white striped button shirt, which he regards as the prettiest item in his bureau.
It turned out that I’d marked picture day incorrectly on our calendar, and was off by a day.
Yesterday evening we were driving home from soccer practice and Jay asked if he could wear his shirt to school again the next day, when it would be picture day for real. Caroline looked the shirt over. It was stained from lunch and spotted with dirt from soccer. She told him the shirt was too dirty and he’d have to wear something else. Without thinking, I offered from the driver’s seat that I could do a load of laundry that night, and his shirt would be ready again in the morning.
We arrived home and the boys were tired. Just inside the door, Jay balanced with one hand against the couch and tried to remove his shinguards. “I can’t get them off,” he said. “Yes you can,” I replied. “I can’t,” he said, sounding even more pathetic. Then Caroline walked into the living room. She got down on her knees and pulled Jay’s shinguards off, first one, then the other. Finished, he ran off down the hall to the bath, where Wally was waiting for him.
I thought about our experiences with the shirt and the shinguards a lot last night. They stuck out because Caroline and I each acted differently than we usually do toward the boys.
In most of my interactions with Jay and Wally, I’m of one or two mindsets.
The first is a mindset of sternness, setting limits, and pushing them to be responsible. In this mindset, when Jay asks for help taking off his shinguards, I tell him he can do it himself. In this mindset, when he makes a demand like wanting to wear the same shirt two days in a row, I tell him to be flexible, and to consider that I might not have time to do a special load of laundry just for him.
In the second mindset, I’m accommodating, and willing to make the boys the center of our family activity. In this mindset I make a pit-stop for ice cream because I know they’ll like it, or I sign them up for soccer because I know it’s good for them. In these situations, everything revolves around the boys, and I’m on the lookout for creeping ingratitude.
Last night was different. When I offered to do that extra load of laundry for Jay, it felt neither stern nor accommodating—it felt like a small act of mercy. Mercy is a familiar word, but it’s so rarely a part of my life that I looked it up, just to make sure I understood what it means: “kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly.”
I tend to think I’m in charge when I’m making the boys do things my way, and they’re in charge when I’m doing things their way. Mercy is a third way, in which I’m running the show and they’re getting what they want. It feels like a slight distinction when I write it out like that, but it felt so completely and totally new when I practiced it last night. Mercy. This morning it seems to be exactly what Jay and Wally need most.