Ah, I screwed up: How would you resolve the problem?

Alright, I admit, sometimes I get caught in the middle and find that just about any possible solution to a situation is going to inevitably cause unhappiness with one of my children, and that’s just where I am this evening. Read on, and tell me if you think my proposed solution is best, or whether you have a smarter idea…
First off, G- and A- (7yo boy and 11yo girl, respectively) are both very concerned about fairness, about balance between what one gets and what the other gets, in terms of both experience and special treats/activities. Linda and I are now living apart and are finding that the latest issue is who gets to watch what movie with whom. Last night, both G- and A- stayed at my place and based on mutual agreement, they watched a Scooby Doo movie, with the stated understanding that tonight they’d watch A-‘s choice, Top Hat (yes, with Fred Astaire).
Though G- was scheduled to stay with me tonight, he decided this afternoon that he’d really rather spend the night with Linda since they’d spent the day skiing and were enjoying rare one-on-one time together. (K-, our 3yo, is with me tonight too). The only problem was, he had called me to ask whether we’d watch a movie or not tonight. Instead of saying “I already promised A- that we’d watch Top Hat, as you know” I said that we would not. At the time I was thinking that I just didn’t want to adversely influence his decision about whether to stay with Linda or not and that it would be great for him to have more time with her rather than be here watching a movie with everyone.
That was my mistake, needless to say!


When I hung up and told A- that I’d changed my mind and that we weren’t going to watch any movies tonight, she was quite upset because last night I HAD promised her that we would. Since I wanted her to go to bed early anyway, I suggested a compromise: she watched about half the movie and agreed that was sufficient. It was obvious that she’d be really upset if I’d have just said no, and it wouldn’t have been fair to her, truth be told, because we had made the agreement Friday night.
So now what do I do now, dear reader? I’m a tiny bit tempted to ask her to lie to G-: if he asks about a movie, have her just say “no, we didn’t watch one”, but I hate to get the precedent of lying into our family. On the other hand, G- will undoubtedly be upset if he finds out that he stayed with Linda based on the understanding that he wouldn’t be missing anything, yet we DID watch a movie after all.
The horns of a dilemma!
I feel like I put myself into a situation where I couldn’t meet both of my promises, so someone was inevitably going to get the short end of the proverbial stick…
So here’s my proposed solution: tomorrow morning, say to G- that

“Just so you know, I realized after I’d told you we weren’t going to watch any movies that in fact I’d already promised your sister that we would watch Top Hat. Since we had an early night of it, we only watched half the movie, and since I know you wanted to watch it too, I’m willing to have you watch the same portion of the movie when you next stay with me, if you want to, so that we can make sure everything’s fair.”

I’m not thrilled about it, and don’t like undermining his trust in me but maybe that’s the karmic justice of my promising him something I couldn’t fulfill? I do feel like it’s a reasonable solution to the problem, at least.
What do you think?

14 comments on “Ah, I screwed up: How would you resolve the problem?

  1. Tough one to make right, but truth is the way to go. My guess is that G- would have passed on it anyway based on the one-on-one time.
    As it stands, coming clean is certainly the right thing to do. And on top of that, you have to watch that first half again too. 😉

  2. Hi Dave. What a great site, and kudos to you for putting yourself out there. First off – I don’t have kids. 🙂 Am I still allowed to comment? I was a nanny for 5 summers (college and grad school). I also had divorced parents and twin sisters 18 months younger than me (talk about obsessed with fairness)!?!
    I saw your twitter, clicked to the blog and I’m quite fascinated. I agree that you should have said something like, “Have an awesome time son. You and your mom are going to have a blast.” When he asked about what you were going to do, I would have just said – we really don’t know what we’re going to do. Let’s live in the moment and both enjoy our nights.
    It seems to me that the lesson to work on with your kids is about karma. They are half way there since they get the concept of fairness, but there’s one big leap. Fairness doesn’t always happen at the exact same time. I would make a big sign that says, “It all comes out in the wash” or “What comes around goes around.” Meaning – your son should feel confident that there may be a night in the not so distant future where the tables will be turned. I wished my sisters and I hadn’t focused on equality so much. I would tell your kids that focusing on that is small and will hurt them in the long run. They should focus on the giving (and the bigger picture). I know.. hard for kids. Try this: make a game of it…establish a “Person of the Week” program. Everyone focuses on 1 person for 1 week. Take one out to the mall one week and buy them a present. tell the other, no – you have to wait 1 week, then you get yours then. And we all focus on the person who is the “person of the week.”
    I dunno. I’m just brainstorming here. I think you get my point.
    My other solution is to put the Rolling Stones on really loud and make them dance around the house to “you can’t always get what you want… but if you try sometime, you just might find.. you get what you need!!!”
    sincerely,
    kid-less in NJ.
    🙂

  3. Your first mistake was telling your son that you weren’t going to see a movie that night when, at that time, you hadn’t made the decision not too. An “I’m not sure, but tonight it’s important that you stay with Mommy because…” could have gotten you out of it.
    Your second mistake was seemingly going against your own word that you had made to your daughter. If it was a must that she go to bed early, then a sincere explanation should have been sufficient. She may not fully understand, but kids often know when a parent is right.
    The concept of fairness between children is important, but the concept of fairness between parent and child is important as well. If you change your mind then there better be a good reason and it better be effectively explained. Now, in effect, both kids will be forced to see half a movie. What good is that?

  4. Wow Jonathan, that was a nice commentary on Dave’s mistakes. He had already said he screwed up. Who doesn’t in the high pressure, on-the-spot-decision world of parenting? I have made plenty of mistakes myself, and often look here for ideas and support.
    My kids are too small to worry too much about “not fair” yet, and can handle “turn about” okay. I don’t know about teaching them about karma – interesting idea. Maybe when they are bigger. I try to be as honest as possible with my kids, and don’t hesitate (well not too long… usually…) to apologize when I mess up.
    Good luck, Dave.

  5. Pete K.
    If you think I was being harsh that wasn’t my intent. I’m not trying to judge Dave. He asked for feedback.
    My point was the first need in fairness wasn’t to make things “even” between the children, but to be fair between parent and child. And I’m not suggesting that he wasn’t fair.
    But if he tells G that he can only see half a movie because A only saw half, then, in a way, G is suffering because Dave reversed his decision letting A watch the whole movie. His reasons for changing his mind are regarding A, I’m sure, perfectly legitimate. But if he restricts something for G now – only see half a movie – then he is taking something away from him. Mainly, the experience of seeing the whole movie. Not because it’s getting late and because there’s a big day tomorrow, but because his sister only saw one half.
    Perhaps instead of “taking away” something for G, he could make it up to A by “giving” her something…a small gesture.
    That’s my suggestion in Dave’s quest for fairness. Is that being too harsh?
    I’m a parent myself. A single parent. Raising a boy and have him 80% of the time. I probably make more mistakes than Dave. And Dave asked for feedback.

  6. Dave, I give you credit for asking and discussing this openly, when so many parents are concerned with an outward image of perfection.
    -Be honest with them just as you have here;
    “I feel like I put myself into a situation where I couldn’t meet both of my promises”.
    -Explain to Linda if possible, that you made an uncomfortable effort to NOT dissuade G from staying with her. Perhaps some support from her on this in return would greatly affect his perception.
    -Ask G directly; “Hey buddy, you wouldn’t want A and I to just stare at the wall all night would you? If you were here wouldn’t you want to do something fun?”
    I don’t want to be a comment hog so I won’t go on. But I think focusing on and bringing into the discussion the concept of wanting good for each other the best present and long term strategy to encourage love-based other-centered values and fairness.

  7. Thanks for all the interesting comments. I’m kinda overwhelmed by all the different perspectives — and the rather blunt emails I got from this posting too — but I will relate that my sense of impending storm was hooey in the end.
    This posting was actually based on a series of emails I sent Linda on what had happened and what I thought would be the best resolution to the situation, and her response was that she thought I’d solved it pretty neatly with my proposed explanation to G-, and that if anything, I should bring the movie to her place so that if they did decide to watch it, they could watch the whole thing and have it done BEFORE the schoolweek started, so there wasn’t any issue of watching a movie during the week (something we don’t allow).
    This morning I pulled G- aside and said basically what was in my comment above, and his first reaction was “see, I told you!” but then I reminded him that we’d agreed to watch the Scooby Doo movie on Friday and Top Hat on Saturday and he was fine with it and ready to go snowboarding, as per the day’s plan.
    What’s most interesting about this, though, is that the blog commentators are confirming what I believe already is one of the toughest parts of being a parent: thinking on your feet. It’s not about being able to carefully plan everything out but doing the best you can in the moment, and learning how to recover from the inevitable mistakes, glitches, miscalculations, etc., that are going to occur.
    For those of you who actually cut me some slack and had some empathy for my situation, thanks. For the rest of you, well, that’s what makes so many parenting books so darned frustrating to read, the sense that you need to be perfect all the time, and that mistakes are harbingers of doom, not a perfectly normal part of life. I strive, but I really don’t think I’m going to achieve perfection in this life. Maybe next time around…

  8. Sounds to me like your problems started when you took over your kids’ problem. Fair is nice but honesty is more important.
    It seems you tried to entice one kid to stay with Linda by lying.. I’d say, from reading this site, that you could trust your kid to decide for themself..
    I suggest a page from the Love & Logic playbook .. Tell them what you’re willing to do.. “Well, we’re planning on watching a movie.. why do you ask??” .. if a whining, power play follows you could say, “Sounds like you have a difficult choice(smile) Let me know what you decide.”
    All this said with love and understanding (not manipulation or spite.. that’ll blow up in your face.)
    Let kid 2 do what you promised (and next time remember Underpromise and Overdeliver)..
    Next time they say, “we wanna watch a movie!!” you could say, “Great idea!! What are we gonna watch?”.. when the argument ensues.. say, “Oh no.. what a bummer.. I’d be happy to have a movie on the TV if you two can agree on one. Let me know what you decide.”… if they don’t decide in a few minutes say, “I guess we aren’t watching a movie tonight. I’ll be in the den reading if you need me.”
    They won’t be happy with this.. but if you stick to it and when they whine you meet the whine with Love .. “Oh my.. you seem so upset.” .. and “I know..” and.. “I love you too much to argue.”… and then go away and don’t argue..
    Simple.. not easy.. but simple.. it seems to me that you’ve got some guilt in there that wants to be dealt with..
    You can also use Stephen Wright’s funny line when they say it’s unfair.. “You can’t have everything.. where would you put it??”
    Good luck!
    Dave :o)

  9. Sorry.. skipped ahead and missed your last post..
    I like your commentary on reacting.. but the problem we parents tend to get is trying to react with perfect consequences.. thinking on our feet actually gets us into sticky messes..
    NOT thinking tends to work well.. we are very good at NOT thinking.. use a time-buying line.. “Uh oh! I’m going to have to do something about that! How sad.. Try not to worry about it.” and then don’t argue.. they’ll be wondering what your consequence will be for a long time.. and you don’t have to have a snap (possibly angry) consequence that turns out to be unfair.
    My rule of thumb.. if my brain is working hard to fix their problem.. well.. I should hand the problem back… they aren’t dogs.. we can delay consequences a L-O-N-G time and they’ll still associate it with the undesirable behaviour.
    But hand them Love right away.. when they screw up… Hug them.. then say the “Uh oh..” bit ..
    That’s my thought..
    Dave
    Full-Time, Stay-at-home Dad of a 2-year-old girl and 5-year-old boy (whom I home-school).

  10. I think one of the big mistakes parents make is to let kids think that “fair” and “equal” are the same. When my kids complain that it isn’t fair that I let one of them do something and not the other, I always ask if it would be fair if I expected the same things from a 6 and a 10 year old or to treat them the same way. I also think admitting to your kids that you screwed up is a good learning experience for them. And not watching a movie will probably cause him to need years of therapy or anything. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

  11. Oh, my! Mountain out of molehill? Don’t worry so much. Goodness knows I’ve gotten snared by the fairness argument many times but I’m also not afraid to say, “Life isn’t fair. You’ll have to get over it.” Do the kids like me saying that? Not a bit. Should it matter very much that they don’t like it? Nope.
    When you say you are tempted to ask your child to lie….that’s when I start worrying about you. Maybe that statement was just hyperbole. If you were serious, then GET A GRIP! What is it you want to teach these kids? It’s okay for your children (both of them) to learn that plans can change when they are out of the room. Oh, and another thing…don’t make silly promises next time. You’re the grownup and you KNOW plans can change.

  12. If everyone had the same experience in life.. we would have nothing interesting to to tell the other.. I think you were very thoughtful. It is stressful trying to be fair… Perhaps just having a sit down and explain that it will not always be the same.. that sometimes you may do not always do exactly the same thing with each child .. Just like they don’t do the same thing with Mom, Granny, grandpa, uncle, aunt.. PErhaps express it through pets.. do you brush kitty a exactly the same as kitty B? eactly at the same time.. or perhaps knowing when each kitty needs Care give it to them then? Your oldest is going to understand fair. As your 3 r old can’t snowboard… and not sure if the 7 yr old can either… is that fair? .. perhaps explaing that Fairness and fun will balance it’s self out in a day, week, a month and a year.. And as much as you are going to want to make promises.. I would steer clear of too many of them.. Making proposals of what might happen is easier to work with .. kind of like a menu… Also planning Suprises instead of commitments is also a nicer option , I find the moment I say we are going iceskating this weekend.. will be the moment I am cornered and can not back out.. the spontenaity of life and the flow cannot not be adjusted.. So in your AP parenting style what we do is understanding the needs of each child.. PErhaps explaining I was meeting the needs of your sister… Is there something you need now? Because his needs were being met by his mother.. IT’s not as if he went without food, shelter, and love… (and fun too)
    Remind him that he has many many weekends to cover to find balance of what he would like to do and that
    he will have plenty of time and choices to make with you.
    The whole “She got this and I didn’t” has to be worked on because of your situation.. it’s will be used for manipulation as a Mom lets me and you should too.. Because it’s gonna be about fairness right?

  13. Don’t beat yourself up, Dave. No parent is perfect, goodness knows. Like so many other’s indicated, honesty is the best policy. Just explain the situation to all involved, show remorse for not being upfront, and explain to your kids the importance of being honest. While this situation started off rocky, you can use this as a great learning tool to teach your kids the importance of honesty and being open with the one’s you love. By doing this, you can teach your children that no person is perfect and when you make mistakes, you correct them.

  14. IMHO, Dave C has the best approach (I’m biased b/c it’s similar to what I do).
    I’ve been teaching my kids to take responsibility for themselves AND their behavior. My role is to love them, support them and guide them – not think for them or arbitrate for them (certainly if I can at all help it).
    I see my kids as kids (not little adults) who are loving, healthy and intelligent. Every interaction with them (and everyone else, for that matter) I intend to come from a place of love and compassion.
    When I experience the emotions of being tired, hungry, or frustrated – these are “red flags” for me, that can cause me to come out sideways with those around me, especially those I care about.
    I encourage my kids to call me on things that they think are unfair, and we talk about it (it’s a “teachable moment”). I apologize to them when I’m wrong, or they feel I’ve done something that they disagree with.
    We have a rule – “No Whining If you whine,m then the answer is automatically “No”.”, and we enforce that rule. When they both want to do somewhat different (watch movie A or watch movie B) and they don’t agree to it out of the gates, then they negotiate w/each other until they can resolve it. I listen to their negotiations and tell them whether I think they were being fair (if such comments are warranted).
    In your specific example, I would have let G- make his own choice – and not taken responsibility for what I thought his feelings or thoughts were. He needs to do that. If I disagreed with his choice, I would have told him that, why I disagreed and what I thought he should do (I’m his parent, after all). If we needed to negotiate a compromise that was fair, we could have done it there, and then I would empower him to make sure it gets enforced (you probably wouldn’t have to do that anyway!)
    Parenting – toughest job in the world, as there are no right answers and it never ends…and there is NOTHING that compensates like it!
    One of the things I do w/my kids when I tuck them in at night, is I review their day with them, I ask them what were all of their favorite parts of the day, what was their most favorite special moment of the day. They end up going to sleep with smiles on their faces and I get a deeper connection with them, and a better insight into their world, from their perspective – and, if there is anything that happened that day where you feel you might need to clean something up, well, then you’ve got an opportunity..
    I am confident that I am also doing enough things to keep MANY Psychologists in business for years to come!!! 🙂

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