Stealing

November 7th, 2012

Stealing

 ©by Ilene L. Dillon, M.S.W.

If there is one message that will haunt my children’s minds for their entire lives, it is my idea—that I told them over and over—that our earth is a big, “Giant School” to which all humans come to grow and learn. I taught them that the name of our teacher is “Experience,” which means that every experience we have in life is an opportunity to grow.  If you learn the lesson inherent in an experience, you are free to move on to something else.  If you don’t learn it, you go over and over and over the same lesson, presented in different ways, until you learn it, or you die.  Furthermore, each presentation of the lesson is harsher or more difficult than the one before (the Universe is trying to get your attention!). 

So when Jon returned home from school the day I received that call from the manager of the 7-11 Convenience Store in our town, he knew exactly what I was talking about when I said to him:  “So, Jonathan!  I understand that today is the day you decided to learn about stealing, is that right?”

Head hanging, he nodded.  “Come sit and talk with me,” I instructed.  “Tell me what you learned so far.”

Tears began to stream down his little 8 year old face, as he looked up and said to me “Stealing is not worth it.  It is definitely not worth it!”

“Wow.  That’s important that you learned that stealing is not worth it,” I said to him, offering him some comfort by pulling his little body closer to mine.  “I don’t think you have stolen before, have you?”

Jon shook his head, “no”.  “Tell me, then, what happened?  How did it come to be that you stole?”

Sobbing, Jon told me the story.  “You see, there were these two boys walking home from school with me.  They told me that they stole candy bars at the 7-11 and it was fun.  They said it would be fun for me, too.  Except they didn’t get caught; and I did!”  He wailed for a while, as I considered what to say next.

Jon had changed schools that year.  He had been attending a Catholic school in the town next to ours; but we had decided to enroll him in the public school in our town, straight down the hill from where we lived, for the third grade.  I could appreciate that Jon was having new experiences, feeling a little unsteady, and wanted to be accepted by new friends.

“Let me get this straight,” I said.  “You’re telling me that there were these two boys—I mean these two voices—outside of you that told you to steal, that it was fun and that it would be fun for you, too.  And you listened to these voices and did what they said?”

Jon nodded.

“Tell me, Jon, was there ever any other voice you heard?”

Jon nodded again.

“Well, whose voice was it, do you think—and what did it say?”

“I think it was my voice,” he said through his tears.  “And it said ‘don’t do it; it’s not a good idea!’”

“Hmmmm.  So what you’re telling me is that there were these two voices—outside of you –that told you to steal, that it was fun and that it would be fun for you, too.  And you listened to these voices and did what they said.  But there was also another voice—your voice—coming from inside of you and it said ‘don’t do it; it’s not a good idea’.  And you chose to listen to the two voices coming from outside of you, and not to the voice coming from inside of you.  Is that right?”

Another thing I had emphasized in raising my children, using the tenets of a method I had developed in the mid-1970’s which I was calling “Conscious Parenting”, was that one of the most important tasks for human beings was to learn to make choices.  And even more important than making choices was paying attention to the consequences of the choices we made, so we could change those choices in the future if we didn’t like the consequences that resulted.  There really were no “right” or “wrong” choices; there were only choices that “worked” or “didn’t work.” Jon and I had been observing the consequences of his choices for several years already, helping him to make new choices when the ones he made were not working well for him.  He knew and understood this process well.

I continued talking with Jon.  “Tell me, if you could go back to the beginning of the day today, would you make the same choice; or would you make a different choice?”

Jon never hesitated.  “I would make a different choice!” he said, emphatically.  “I would listen to my own voice!  In fact, from now on, I’m listening to the voice coming from inside of me, and not to voices coming from outside of me!”

He began to sob again, allowing me to cuddle and comfort him.  At last his sobs slowed, and I was able to say “Jon, if you learned today that stealing is not worth it, and that it is better to listen to the voice coming from inside of you instead of voices coming from outside of you, then I think you had a very valuable day!  In fact, I’m really proud of you!”

We sat in silence for a while, both of us absorbing the wonderful thing we had just done together.  Then, we went about getting homework, dinner, bedtime story and peaceful sleep completed, just as if we had lived a normal day.

One of the things I had discovered in developing my parenting approach is that children need to be able to listen to themselves. There are so many situations in life they would be encountering for which they would not have a roadmap.  I would not be living forever to help them make decisions through life. Even if I lived forever, I would not be constantly with them, guiding their choices. I had come to the conclusion that the best thing I could equip my children with was the ability to make choices that were right for them, regardless of the situation.  Jon had moved closer to being able to do this by the way he processed the events of this day.

I thought back to what happened when I experimented with stealing.  My father had found out and first, shamed me.  Then he spanked me.  I did not learn to stop stealing as the result of his parenting.  What I learned was to make sure my Dad didn’t know what I was doing!  My father’s approach (which was the best he knew to do at that time) drew my attention to him, rather than to myself.  When I didn’t steal, it wasn’t because I knew it was best for me to refrain from stealing; it was because I was convinced I didn’t want more shaming and physical punishment from my father!  This is what happens any time, as parents, we react so strongly or punish so powerfully, that our child’s attention is drawn away from him or her self, and to the parent.  We need to remember that although the parent may learn something from the experience, the primary learning is for the person who has the experience, and keep the focus of our attention there!

By leading Jon to examine the choice he had made, and find alternative choices that he could make, Jon was learning to listen to himself.  He was also building character.  Character gets built when we live according to our own ideals and principles.  The principle Jon adopted on that fateful autumn day in 1985 was “listen to the voice coming from inside of me, not to voices coming from outside of me” whenever he had a decision to make.  The great thing about that voice that is inside of us is that nobody can take it away from us!  That voice is ours.

I was so impressed with this interaction, the following year I asked Jon for permission to tell the story in my parenting classes.  Always generous, he said “Of course, Mom.  If you think it can help somebody, you can tell this story.”

It became my “signature story,” the one I told to open every Conscious Parenting lecture and every parenting class.  It was a parenting approach that was so different from what most parents had ever experienced (or thought of), that it was a powerful demonstration of how different Conscious Parenting was.  Once they heard this story, most parents were eager to learn the underlying philosophy that fostered such a novel approach to my child stealing a candy bar.  It was a great story.  I told it far and wide.

One day, when Jon was about 14, I was suddenly consumed with the awful thought that I might be telling this story over and over, thinking Jon had learned not to steal again as a result of the incident, when in fact, he might have been stealing all the time!  So, I asked him “Jon, remember the time you stole the candy bar?  Will you tell me—did you ever steal again since that time?” 

Jon was quiet for a long, long time. Then, he raised his head and looked me squarely in the eyes.  “No,” he responded.  “I have never stolen again.”  I nodded, quite satisfied.  “But I have lied a few times!” he blurted, laughing.  I was so relieved that he hadn’t been stealing all this time, that I was able to laugh with him on this one.

The manager of the 7-11 had informed me of the three-step policy they had for dealing with children stealing from their store.  For the first offense, the child’s parents were called and the child was not allowed back into the store for a month.  For the second offense, the child was delivered home by the 7-11 staff, and not allowed in the store for three months.  For the third offense, they called the police.  Jon’s month of banishment from 7-11 was up on a Saturday.  I had long-since forgotten about his banishment; but he had not!  At 9 a.m., he asked me if it would be okay for him to ride his bike down the hill and go to the 7-11.  Suddenly, I realized what was happening.  This was Jon’s way of “getting back on the horse” that had bucked him off.  “Of course,” I said, giving him a kiss and a warm hug.  “Would you like some money to buy a candy bar?  I’d love to give you some!”

I never met those two boys, or even learned who they were.  But I silently thanked them for being Jon’s teachers!  By tempting him to steal the candy bar, they gave him an experience that allowed him to learn a lesson that even a lot of adults have never learned.  That still, small voice inside of us is the one to which we need to listen, in order to navigate through a life we will be proud to have lived.