Friday, May 22, 2009

Mine or Yours? [Erica, Frogtown neighbor]

Emily came home from school especially hungry one afternoon. She told me that for the previous couple of weeks, part of her lunch was missing by the time she got to the cafeteria. In fact, it was the same item missing every time and her favorite part of her lunch – a tube of berry yogurt.

She thought she knew who might be taking the food from her locker, but she hadn’t told anyone about it before our conversation that day. I think she was motivated by a desire to protect the suspect, who already got into more than her fair share of trouble.

My instinct as a mother and citizen was to put a stop to the stealing. Emily could talk to her teacher. I could call the school. She and her friends could hide out and try to catch her classmate in the act. This train of thought seemed normal. I quickly played out the scenarios in my mind, subconsciously gauging the probable success of each option. Intervening didn’t just seem like the right thing to do, but the only thing to do. How could we let this wayward child get away with thinking that stealing was okay? If we didn’t put a stop to it, who knows what criminal activity might be in her future?

But, something stopped me from opening my mouth. For a split second I wondered if there was another option, another way. Seconds turned into minutes and my mouth blessedly stayed closed. Something in me was drawn to the possibility of breaking the pattern of reactionary, punitive approaches to disagreeable behavior. What else could we do?

Being the middle of three children, I got an early education in the laws of “mine” and “yours.” Sometimes the dividing lines in my shared bedroom were made visible by tape, string or a line of shoes. Most times the lines were implied yet understood and respected. As I got older, I didn’t need visible lines or long negotiations because I had developed an intuitive sense of personal space and boundaries. I kept track of my things and generally left everything else alone unless invited otherwise (with the exception of my sister’s closet, which is universally forgiven after adolescence).

This lesson on my relationship to possessions has shaped my worldview and, therefore, my behavior. I am generally grateful for this – I would have been quite a societal misfit had I not learned these lessons early on. The downside is that these laws of “mine and yours” became almost absolute. Sharing “my things” felt strange and gradually became the exception to the rule of hoarding and protecting what belonged to me. As with most patterns learned in childhood, this was soon embedded in my brain as the normal, acceptable and right way to live. And generally, it probably is. But this experience with my eight-year-old daughter was sparking a re-thinking of these patterns and leading me to imagine a looser interpretation of “mine and yours.”

I saw this as not only a teachable moment for my daughter to learn how to face problems like this, but it was an important moment for me. Is someone in her mid-thirties capable of re-imagining human interactions and changing patterns of thought and behavior? I am a glass-is-half-full kind of person, so I hoped so. Here was a chance to put it to the test.

Before fully forming a complete strategy in my head, I threw out an idea to my daughter, who was by this point finishing her after-school snack and only halfway paying attention: “What if tomorrow we put two tubes of yogurt in your lunch box?” What if, in anticipation of another visit from her mischievous friend, we chose to share instead of hoard?

Emily steadied her spoon and looked at me. I could see her mind processing this unusual solution. Perhaps she was expecting her friend to take both and she would still be left without a full lunch. Or what if her other friends found out and teased her for being nice to the class outsider? She didn’t say “no” right away, so I pushed it a bit further and suggested something more: “What if you also wrote a note and attached in to the second yogurt, showing that you know what is going on and mentioning that you have something in common – you both like yogurt?”

This evoked a sly smile, like she wasn’t sure if I was serious or if this last part was a clue that I had been teasing all along. I insisted there was a way to do it with minimal chance of embarrassment to her. My daughter bravely agreed to give this route a try. We got out pen and paper and Emily penned a note that said something like, “Enjoy the yogurt. I am glad you like it. I like it too, so please save one for me.”

Such a small thing and yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it that whole next day. The reality is that we have more than enough food in the house. As soon as that box of yogurt was gone, we could afford to go to the store and by another. Our kids have never known a day of hunger in their lives. And although I am not certain that the stealing was motivated by hunger, there is a strong chance of it as our kids go to a school where over 90% of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Regardless of the student’s motivation to take the food, the issue was becoming less about her and more about us. There is just too much we don’t know about other people’s behavior so we can only stick with deciding our own. In this case, will we share or hoard?

Sharing felt really good.

I recognize there are risks to approaching adverse behavior this way and I am not sure how this strategy would work when the stakes are high. Admittedly, the stakes couldn’t have been much lower than they were in this scenario.

But there is also a risk in teaching our children to be strictly governed by the laws of “mine” and “yours.” This worldview too easily sets people up to be enemies or threats. In a simple way, our daughter had a chance to do the unexpected and show kindness instead of retribution or malice. It was wrong of this classmate to steal, and we made sure Emily understood that. But I felt it would also be wrong of us to teach our daughter that the only ways to respond would be to either ignore it or turn it into something that could break up a friendship.

We don’t know of any changes in this other student’s life. We do know of a change in ours. The tiny spark of a “what if…” question and the resulting experiment in kindness was strangely liberating and has opened our eyes to new possibilities.

That next afternoon Emily came home a little less hungry. She made it to lunch with her meal intact and felt more satisfied. The extra yogurt was gone and the note was left in her lunchbox. This continued for about the next two weeks and then the mid-morning visits to Emily’s locker stopped. We like to think the student is now reformed and no longer sees stealing as an option.

Or maybe she just doesn’t like yogurt anymore.