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Of children, eggs and screeching
By Orson Scott Card March 4, 2010

My son, Geoffrey, and his wife, Heather, have two daughters, Zoë (4) and Phoebe (2). Quite apart from the fact that these children are of extraordinary intelligence and virtue, they're quite normal.

So parents everywhere will understand this story, even if their children have not found such strange ways to be creative.

One morning, Daddy was wakened by the sound of Phoebe's voice, saying -- no, crowing with pride -- "Zoë! I've got eggs!"

Since Mommy was still asleep, it was highly unlikely that this happy sentiment sprang from contemplation of an ordinary breakfast.

So Daddy swung out of bed, stepped to the bedroom door, and there saw Phoebe walking up the hall, her arms full of eggs.

Behind her, one egg had already fallen and broken, but still, her percentage of success in egg transportation was rather higher than one might have expected, given that she was carrying most of a dozen.

But Daddy knew, without even having to reflect or contemplate or reason, that if he responded with any kind of scolding, let alone anger, the chance of his then having to clean up one hundred percent of the eggs would be rather high.

And since a rough estimate told him these were all the eggs in the house, it would also put a bit of a damper on breakfast plans.

At the same time, egg pilfering was a behavior he wished to discourage in his children. Apparently he had not made this clear.

But he decided that scolding or punishing a two-year-old was a much lower priority than saving the eggs. So he quietly and cheerfully said, "That's a lot of eggs, Phoebe!"

"Yeah!" she said proudly.

Whereupon Daddy led her quietly and calmly back into the kitchen, where he unloaded the eggs one by one from Phoebe's arms onto the kitchen table.

Not that there was a lot of room on the kitchen table, mind you. It seems that Phoebe's favorite way of playing with her toys was to line them all up in neat rows, organized according to principles known only to Phoebe herself.

Phoebe had thus dealt with every single item from the refrigerator. All of them were lined up in rows around the reachable edges of the kitchen table. So placing the eggs on the table required some dexterity.

Finally all were removed from Phoebe's arms. Apart from the egg already shattered -- on the kitchen floor rather than on carpet, bless the child -- the only other loss was the egg into which Phoebe had managed to insert a finger. Apparently this was the result of her firm grip, and if it had helped her keep from dropping any of the others, Daddy was pleased.

So instead of spending the morning renting a shampooer to clean most of a dozen eggs out of the hallway carpet -- the certain result if Daddy had reacted with anger or panic -- the family had two very nice things:

1. A lesson about why things in the fridge needed to stay in the fridge.

2. Eggs.

As children get older, they find different things to do that will make their parents want to screech in surprise, fright, dread, or anger. Oddly, they actually become somewhat less creative than two-year-olds; by the time they're in their teens, their misdeeds are likely to fall into much more predictable categories.

They will have much less excuse, too, because most of their misdeeds will have been explicitly explained and prohibited in advance. There is no chance that they have no idea they're doing wrong. They are most definitely accountable.

But the very fact that they expect, when discovered, to be screeched at does not mean that screeching is the best response. They know you disapprove. That's why they concealed it from you until now.

More often than not, a calm discussion is the best way to begin. This does not mean there will not be consequences -- loss of privileges, loss of parental trust, and the sometimes-dire natural results of the more serious sins, from which they cannot and probably should not be entirely sheltered.

If they face your instant rage, they will interpret it as hate, rejection, or at the very least a great rift between you.

If they face your calm, measured response, focused on finding out exactly how extensive the problem is and what needs to be done to cope with the immediate natural consequences (a trip to the doctor? A tow truck? Bail?), and only later have the unpleasant conversation with you in which you explain -- still without screeching -- your interpretation of their choices, then they get a very different message.

They learn that the lines of communication and love are still open; that your disappointment, surprise, or pain does not mean that love is gone.

Only one egg has dropped. All the other eggs -- all the other things that you hope for your child -- are still there. You don't want the rest to be shattered, just because one has been.

The child is responsible for the one. But who is responsible if our reaction causes all the rest to fall?

Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card

 
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