It was my first year on the job as principal when these two eighth graders got into a fistfight. It may have even been my first month. I was so excited about beginning in my new position, that I hadn’t even considered there would be problems along the way. I’m far past that stage now to where I typically beware of slipping on a stray banana peel if some issue hasn’t popped up by 11a.m. each day.
I’ve discovered over the past several years that we don’t have many good old fights at our school. The few that we do have just involve pushing or name-calling, kind of like a skirmish in the NBA. But this day involved actual haymakers and it was clearly instigated by one of the two kids. To shorten the story, Student One turned a quiet recess snack time into a game of “let’s see what happens when I fire a ball at Student Two’s head?” Well, what happened was that Student Two quickly changed that game into “let’s fight” and the gentlemen were soon in my office. They were red-faced and looking as if they had both just run the mile at P.E.
Although I had zero experience in this type of situation at the time, I knew that these guys immediately had to be suspended for their part in the altercation. I called their parents and waited for them to arrive at school to hear what had happened. I don’t really remember the interaction I had with the parents of the instigating student that day, but the reaction of the father of the other child has stuck with me for twelve years now.
I did not know this dad well, but I knew enough of him to respect him as a father. He was kind, yet very direct and he had well-mannered kids, except that one of them liked to fight when hit in the head with a ball. When he came, I knew that I would need to have all the facts for him: who started it, how it escalated, and how it finished. Since his boy didn’t originate the problem, I figured that these would be especially important details. I was wrong.
The dad walked into the office, looked at his son, then looked at me and said, “What did he do?” I started from the beginning of the story, “Well, another boy threw a…” He interrupted, “I don’t care what another boy did. What did my son do?” In surprise, I started from the beginning again, “This other boy…” He stopped me again, “The only thing I care about is what my son did. I don’t care who started it or what any other person did. Just tell me what he did.” I responded, “He punched someone several times.” That’s all the father needed to know as he turned to walk out the door with his son. His words as he left: “Thanks Mr. Jackson, he’ll be digging sprinkler ditches in our backyard until you see him next.”
“I don’t care what another boy did. What did my son do?” ~A Good Dad
As parents, our natural reaction in times like this is to point fingers, investigate, and blame. We want to know “who triggered this?” “what made them do it?” or “who else got in trouble?” The problem is that the world doesn’t work this way in other contexts. When I get pulled over for speeding, for example, the officer does not reference who caused me to drive too fast or which other drivers were also driving over the limit. He is quite focused, however, on the speed of my car, which may have gotten me into this problem on the side of the road.
Meanwhile, our kids are studying us as we react to what happens in their young lives. If we find the fault in everyone else but them, we are giving them an early lesson on how to shift responsibility from themselves to others as they grow up. Then we wonder why they use these same tactics against us in sibling arguments, struggles to do chores, and other issues at home. As they then grow into adults, these same kids may then lean on their learned blame-shifting skills at work, in finances, and in their own marriages. These are hardly the skills I want to teach them.
I’m grateful for the parenting lesson that father taught me more than a decade ago. Blaming and focusing on the wrongs of others won’t empower my kids to make great choices for themselves. It will help them to become independent young people who own their decisions and the consequences that come with them and those are things that will better them for life.