Full disclosure: My boys have committed countless ridiculous, embarrassing, dangerous and stupid acts that I’ve never shared publicly. And it’s been tempting. After all, I’m a parenting expert and I have children who never seem to miss an opportunity to make me feel how ironic my professional title is. But I do honor my children’s privacy, and I do recognize that it may be especially irritating to have me as a mother. So I’ve kept the “mom” sharing to a minimum.
But two weeks ago, Elijah, my 13-year-old son, lit a smoke bomb not seven feet from me. In my living room. Just to be clear, “living room” means “inside my house.”
You light a bomb in my house, I get to tell the world.
The official reason I’m doing this is because my husband, James, and I thought a lot about how to use this experience as a teachable moment. It’s also an opportunity to practice what I preach. But the other reason is that it just makes me feel better to share with other people how mind-blowingly stupid my boys can be.
Here's how the whole thing went down:
After spending the day playing in a basketball tournament, Elijah brought two teammates back to the house with him. A couple of hours later, I was sitting on the couch next to Elijah when Miller, an exceptionally nice kid, told me he needed to go downstairs because he “didn’t want to keep his mom waiting” when she picked him up. He really said that.
A few minutes later Elijah said to me, “Mom, I’m going to do something really stupid.” I immediately responded, “Whatever it is, don’t do it.”
But for some reason my radar was down so I didn’t pay attention when Elijah left the room shortly after making this declaration. When he returned a few minutes later, he nonchalantly walked by me and set off the smoke bomb. Immediately, blue smoke filled the room, and then the house; which caused all the smoke alarms to go off. At that exact moment, Miller’s very nice father and his two adorable younger sisters rang the doorbell.
First, I focused on damage control. Turn off the alarms, get the nice family out of the house, and then deal with the real problems at hand. I still had Jackson, Elijah’s other friend, in the house. I didn’t want to lose it in front of him because he’d already seen me truly rage—a few months before, at 3 a.m., in my bathrobe, no less (due to another mind-blowingly stupid thing my younger son, Roane, did involving a rug and salsa, but I digress). Determined to keep myself under control, I calmly asked Jackson to walk home and brought Elijah into our room—where James was trying to calm himself down—for sentencing.
Here’s the challenge. In these moments, when emotions are at their highest—
- embarrassment because of the nice family at the door
- fury at your child, and
- the glaring realization that you might possibly live with the world’s worst roommate, who might burn your house down if you stop paying attention for five minutes
—it’s really hard to think clearly and act maturely. But you have to if you want any chance of getting through to your child and keeping your sanity.
In the five minutes between getting everyone out of the house and talking to Elijah, here’s what James and I decided were the most important things we needed to communicate.
- We both accept that our children are fascinated with fire and what happens when things explode. That is why we have educated both of them on fire safety and fireworks. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always translate into good judgment on their part.
- We recognize that we can’t leave Elijah unsupervised in the house until he can prove he has better judgment. That will take time—which is annoying but true.
- Because Elijah demonstrated disregard for the safety of our home, he will be responsible for the majority of its upkeep in the hope that he’ll appreciate to some extent how hard it is to maintain a house and what a colossally bad idea it is to burn one down.
I know Elijah respects us. I know he has a degree of fear of us. But he has yet to experience the horror you feel when something you’ve done goes terribly wrong. Not all 13-year-olds are like this, but he is a supremely confident man-child who has never been able to just take someone’s word for it. Since he was 2½ and stuck a metal shower ring into the heating system and short-circuited the electrical system of our house, he has been an “experimental learner.” So my goal is to get Elijah to connect his higher processing with his let’s-see-what-happens-if-I-do-this thinking. That’s going to be one of the main objectives of his adolescent development.
But it's going to be a long road. I kid you not, today—not two weeks later—Elijah woke James from his Saturday afternoon nap and asked, “Dad….Dad…Dad…Do we have any flammable liquids in the house?”