The other day, my four-year-old was looking at a snail on the sidewalk whose shell was partially broken. He mentioned to me that he had a spare shell that he wanted to give to it “to make it better.” This was a fancy shell with the Spiderman logo painted on it. JJ had brought it home from the pet store several months ago and had been keeping it in his closet ever since.
It just so happens that this shell was never paid for.
JJ informed me that when we were at the store, he had put a fancy hermit crab shell in his shirt pocket–“It was my gray shirt with the yellow stripes,”–and that if I had noticed a lump in his pocket, he would have told me that he had just moved something from his pants pocket up to his shirt. Such was his plan.
But I never did notice. Not at the store, not when we got home, not after he stowed the Spiderman shell away in his closet. Not until he told me of it as we were looking at that snail with the broken shell the other day.
I had to make sure I was understanding things correctly:
Me: When did you get this shell with the Spiderman symbol on it? I don’t remember this.
JJ: A while ago. From the pet store. When I was 3 1/2.
Me: How much did it cost?
JJ: It didn’t cost anything! I just had it in my pocket.
Me: You know, everything at the store costs money; we have to pay for stuff there. When you take something out of the store without paying, that’s called stealing.
JJ: I didn’t steal it! I just had it in my pocket.
Me: OK. But you still took something from the store without paying for it.
JJ: I was just 3 1/2, not even 4!
Me: OK, we need to go get it, take it back to the store. No one paid for it so we shouldn’t have it. Let’s go now.
I was appalled that this happened, but I was trying not to lecture or shame. It was hard! I was trying to focus on the facts and on fixing this mistake. I wanted my son to know that telling me was the right thing to do, and that I will help him fix the situation. I want him to tell me about future mistakes, not hide them for fear of how I’ll respond.
So we abandoned our snail-watching and headed straight home to fetch the shell. Despite JJ ransacking his entire closet, it wasn’t anywhere to be found. I was actually a little surprised, as he had been so sure of its exact placement, but after all, it had been several months since it had found its way in there. I said, “We have to go to the pet store anyway. Grab your wallet.”
As we drove, I told JJ that it was a mistake to take the shell without paying for it, and we needed to fix it. We either needed to give the shell back or give the store the money for it. Since we didn’t have the shell to give back, he can pay the money for it.
Panic overtook him for an instant “No! What if I don’t have enough?” What I think he really meant was, “What if I have to use all of my money?”
I didn’t know how much JJ had in his wallet, but I figured he had a couple of dollars at least. I also couldn’t imagine that a hermit crab shell could cost more than about eighty cents. But I said anyway, “If it costs more money than what you have, I will lend you the rest, so we can pay the store right now.”
The pet store cashier was happy to assist us as I explained to him that we were there to fix a mistake. JJ relayed to him the events of the spiderman crab shell (“It happened when I was only 3 1/2”). The guy was able to ring up the shell without a receipt, using the code for “extra crab shell”…at $4.99. Yikes. Now I wasn’t sure if he really did have enough to cover it. But we counted out a total of four dollar bills from his wallet, then as much change as he had to add up to $4.99. It took 3 weeks-worth of JJ’s allowance to fix this mistake.
JJ paid for the shell without a word. He was silent the whole ride back home. Again, I resisted the temptation to lecture about “lessons learned.” It was a powerful lesson indeed, having to literally empty his wallet for something he doesn’t even have.
I couldn’t wait to get home and give my son a huge hug. I ran around the car to open his door before he had a chance to hop out on his own like he usually does. I stopped him and scooped him into my arms. He hugged me right back. Tight. We stood there in the garage like that for a while, and I told him how much I love him and that he did a very hard thing. “We had a problem, and you fixed it. You did the very rightest right thing of all.” He relaxed and smiled, then hugged me even harder. “Yeah,” he said. “I did.”