My daughter ran to me when I entered the playground, happy to be going home after what was certainly a fun and carefree normal day of school. She handed me her "treasures" as she calls them, a usual assortment of leaves, mulch, and rocks that she finds while playing outside. The best make their way home and if she remembers, she puts them in a small treasure box my mom made for her.
As we turn to go and she gave a few hugs to classmates, one spoke up, "Where is my rock?"
It's Amy, a nice, shy three-year-old that my daughter plays with often. "I would like my rock back, please."
My daughter seemed to know this was coming and answered with, "It's my rock, Dad."
This is a parenting first for me - a she-said/she-said between friends over a rock. There are hundreds of them on this playground, readily available to any child or adult who would like them. And of all the rocks on all the playgrounds, now we must determine who can lay claim to this one. Adding to the drama is the fact my daughter is making a beeline for the door. After all, the park and pudding await. She has no time for accusations about rocks.
I asked my daughter point blank: "Is that Amy's rock?"
"No. It's mine."
"Was Amy playing with it first? Did she give it to you to borrow?"
"No. I found it in the sandbox and it's my rock."
A teacher noticed our departure was taking longer than usual and comes to listen. She repeated the same line of questioning to my daughter and Amy. I've seen several episodes of CSI but surely even they never tackled something so complex.
The teacher assured me it'll be okay and bids us farewell. "See you tomorrow!" she cheerfully said, knowing that today's rocks become tomorrow's long lost memories for three-year-olds. Or maybe they become buried childhood memories that only surface after a night of heavy drinking and bad decisions in college.
As we entered the stairwell, something didn't quite feel right. I didn't think this rock was my daughter's to take. And so began the hardest conversation of my three-plus years of parenting.
"I really think this is Amy's rock," I said to my daughter as I asked her to stop on the top step.
"No! It's mine!" she defiantly told me.
"Did Amy have it first?"
"It's my rock!"
"You're not answering my question. Did Amy have it first and then did you take it or did she let you borrow it?"
"But I really want that rock! It's very special to me."
"It's Amy's rock, sweetheart. We need to give it back to her. We can get another one."
She started to cry. This idea - the giving back of the rock - doesn't sit well. She nearly made it out the door with her rock, the perfect playground heist. Her life of crime had begun until I interrupted it and played the heavy.
"If we pitch a fit, we won't go to the playground. Now tell me - does this rock belong to Amy?"
She finally mutters a yes through tears and desperation. "But I don't want to give it back to her."
"I understand you really like this rock," I tell her. "But it's not yours to keep. It's Amy's. We don't keep things that don't belong to us and we don't take things from other people. That's called stealing and that's wrong."
I could tell stealing is an abstract term and one she's not readily grasping. It quickly dawned on me that I had introduced a whole host of terms that most toddlers would find foreign and that even most of us adults struggle to understand: morality, personal property, community, retribution, reparations, testimony, dishonesty, intentions, confrontation.
I was really hoping to be better prepared to have this first discussion about truth. I was hoping it would fall nicely planned on a Friday, perhaps around 3 PM. You know - something I could plan, put on my calendar, and prepare for. For a guy who schedules time to check email, write, and even drive to meetings, having an impromptu conversation that you hope will prevent your daughter from eventually working her way up to grand larceny can be a bit nerve-wracking.
I fought back a smile as the ridiculousness of the perceived gravity of this situation hit me. But I pressed on. I couldn't back down on this one. I just couldn't. This was the time to lay the foundation of a basic understanding about other people's stuff and our stuff and the fact that we don't take other people's stuff. We're lucky to be able to get stuff on our own so we don't have to steal others'. Not even if it's a free worthless rock. Let them have their stuff. If we want something, we'll work hard and go get it.
I told her it's time to go back outside and give the rock back to Amy. She obliged.
The teacher was partly embarrassed and mostly confused, not assuming we spent the past 10 minutes in the stairwell discussing my daughter's rap sheet. She told me we didn't have to do that. "Yes we did," I said. "It was important."
But ultimately, the lesson wasn't the important part. By bedtime, my daughter forgot about the rock, the word stealing, and how she almost went to jail. I don't think she remembered the moral. But I do hope she remembered the story.
I hope she learned that when something serious happens, we're a family who talks about it. Whether the issue is a wrong that's happened, a major change on its way, or some piece of unexpected news, I hope she knows that talking about it is important enough that the park and pudding can wait and that serious conversations can happen in a stairwell on a moment's notice. We're not a family who hides the truth, mixes messages, or minces words. Let's be one who says what's up and does what's right.
Of course, with this approach, my words won't always be polished and my delivery won't be on point. It won't be like I'm on stage or this speech has been rehearsed a hundred times and I know exactly when the punchline's coming. Hard conversations can't be so perfect. But they don't need to be. Perfect conversations aren't really worth having - at least not with people we love. Perfect conversations are like lines from a play. They can sound great but everyone knows where this is going.
What we need to be better at seeking out are the meaningful conversations, no matter their degree of difficulty. Forget the perfect setting, the perfect reason, and the perfect day. Just start talking. Fumble through a sentence or two and trust me; you'll eventually get where you need to go, giving back a stupid but important rock to the other girl. And when you do, your daughter will grasp your hand, head down the stairs and you two will make it to the park to pick flowers, pick up sticks, and find a rock she can rightfully call her very own.