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I was scared to tell you

I was scared to tell you

Almost two months ago, a friend came over to play and lost his phone. We searched everywhere for it, but couldn’t find a trace. The kid was sure he’d brought it. My kids were sure they’d seen it. Even I recalled seeing him playing with it. We knew it had to be in our house somewhere, but it seemed to have disappeared completely.

His mother was really gracious about it. She said it was just an old beat up phone of hers anyway, not worth trying to replace, but there were a couple of things that bothered me. First, it wasn’t just the phone that disappeared, but also the charger, and the kid didn’t remember even using the charger at our house. He thought he’d left it in his backpack. Second, that same afternoon I got an email saying that someone on an unknown device had tried and failed to sign in to my middle son’s email account.

Considering the history my kids have with taking things that aren’t theirs, these two curious facts made me suspect that the phone had been deliberately hidden rather than lost. I confronted my middle kid about this, but he claimed it had nothing to do with him. I talked to his brothers, but they didn’t know anything about it either.

Even so, I started keeping my eye open, and I soon had some additional confirmations of my suspicions. Twice I thought I heard the sound of phone notifications coming from their room at night. Then I got an email confirming that my middle son’s email address had been used to set up a social media account.

I confronted him again. He denied everything, cried huge tears, claimed I was picking on him, couldn’t understand why I didn’t believe him. So I let it be, and suddenly there were no more mysterious emails, no more phone noises in the night. I figured he’d gotten rid of it or something, or maybe (there was a small possibility) I’d actually been mistaken about the whole situation.

Until his younger brother found it, taped up to the bottom of his bed.

He’d had it the whole time, of course. He’d had only stopped using it because it had fallen and broken one night as he was putting it away, the very night, apparently, that I’d confronted him the second time. He’d hidden it for almost two months, even though it was almost useless to him. He couldn’t call, because it had no plan. He couldn’t text, because people would know he had his friend’s phone. He couldn’t even really use the web, because the phone was so old and slow. In fact, after the first few weeks, he couldn’t use it at all, because he’d broken it.

I sat him down to talk. Why, I asked, would he steal a friend’s phone, sneak around, go through all the accusations and the lying, for basically nothing? He didn’t know. Why would he risk a friendship over a phone? He didn’t know. Why wouldn’t he give the phone up even after it was broken? He didn’t know.

The way I put my head in my hands at that point must have communicated something that my words had not, because he said then, very quietly, “I was scared to tell you because I’d get in trouble.” Having learned from experience not to interrupt him once he starts talking, I just waited until he continued. “I just sort of took it,” he said, “and then I was scared to be in trouble for taking it, and then I was scared to be in trouble for lying, and then I was scared to be in trouble for breaking it.”

It was one of those moments when you realize how different you are from another person, when you have glimpse into how differently people experience the world. It’s not that I can’t understand doing something stupid in the moment – I think everyone’s done that. It’s not that I can’t understand being scared of the consequences of what I’ve done – I’ve had that fear too. What I don’t understand is the choice to live in that fear any longer than you have to.

I’d much rather get it over with as quickly as possible. I’d much rather deal with the consequences now than live in fear of them for the next two months. In his shoes, I might absolutely have taken a phone, then lied about it under pressure, then felt scared to fess up. But as soon as I’d had time to think about it, especially once I’d been confronted about it, I would have confessed and taken my consequences. I could never imagine living, as he did, all that time, with those consequences hanging over my head.

We talked about those kinds of things for a while, and he agreed that it was probably better just to deal with things right away, but I was left with the realization that we need to do a lot of work with him in this area, because fear of consequences works in him very differently than in me. Whereas that fear encourages me to confront the issue before it gets too big, it encourages him to hide from the issue until it gets out of control.

I’m not sure how to approach that problem yet, but just having the insight might just give me some idea of how to parent him better.