We have been lucky with our kids in that neither has exhibited any major behavior problems at school. Each has received a single principal-visit-level writeup for making a boneheaded decision; Riley got in a bus line tussle with another kid in first grade, last year Dylan and a classmate absentmindedly strolled out of school together several minutes before the final bell rang.

This week, however, Dylan was involved in a pretty serious incident in his class. There is still a lot I don’t fully understand about what happened. I know Dylan says he said something in a joking way to a classmate, who later used it as an insult. When this classmate then got in trouble, he blamed Dylan, saying he learned it from him that morning. Dylan then claimed he’d heard it on a YouTube video.

I’m hugely unhappy that someone may have been saddened or upset as the result of something my child said, and I’m particularly frustrated that he tried to lay the blame elsewhere: while I have no doubt he’s been exposed to all kinds of stupidity via YouTube, that is no excuse.

There is no excuse, here. It was a bad choice, he knew better, full stop. No get out of jail free card for being ten or trying to be edgy or cool or simply parroting some despicable thing some shitlord gaming streamer said. He’s been disciplined, he’s been talked to both angrily and earnestly, he had a productive sit-down with our thoughtful and caring principal (albeit in a somewhat delayed fashion, because the scales of fifth grade justice are as overloaded and stretched thin as every other public school resource).

No one wants to be the parent of a kid who does a bad thing, but here is what is even worse: being the parent of a kid who is shaken to his core by the bad thing he did.

I had a long, weepy talk with him, lying in his bed surrounded by his stuffed animals, his Calvin & Hobbes books, his special blankets. In this little-kid place, talking about such big-kid things. His small freckled face, wet and shining. His regret and fear and shame.

I don’t want to be a bad kid
, he sobbed. I held him, so tightly.

Look at me, I said. Look at me. I have made bad choices. I have made so many bad choices in my life.

Do you think I am a bad person? He shook his head.

And I don’t think you’re a bad person. You made a bad choice. There’s a big difference between a bad choice and a bad person. When we made mistakes, we don’t let them define us. We learn from them.

You believe in me, okay? And I will believe in you.

Somewhere inside of me, I felt something shift. Like the tiniest crack in a heavy ice shelf. Bad choice, bad person. Not the same thing. Not the same. My little boy, not so little, still so little. My heart, filling up and breaking and repairing and beating on and on. My dreams for my children and my worries and my most secret fears and my surrenders.

The landmass of shame, the nearly unbearable lightness of grace.

This was a hard thing but he will be okay, he’ll have a deeper understanding of how words have power and how they can hurt and what it means to be a decent human navigating this tricky world with other humans. It was a fairly awful but maybe ultimately impactful learning experience. For both of us.


Our usual Halloween routine involves walking around our quiet neighborhood and running into a few groups of kids here and there before returning home to hand out/devour candy while watching a creepy movie of my choosing. As the resident fan of all things frightening and disturbing, I get to pick, and no, I do not limit myself to age-appropriate options, which is one of the many reasons my children will eventually need therapy.

(I know, I know: the therapy joke is both tired and lame, but honestly, I’m here to say that therapy is actually really awesome and nearly everyone would benefit from it at multiple points in their lives, so I hope my kids DO get therapy when they’re older, and if a teeny tiny bit of Poltergeist-related PTSD encourages that to happen, then I have done them a favor.)

This year, however, we chose to visit John’s brother’s family so Dylan could trick-or-treat with his cousin. We knew their neighborhood goes all out for Christmas — they live in a relatively upscale-modest street but the adjoining streets are filled with actual mansions, and the Christmas displays are so opulent people hire limousines to go cruising by the lights during weekends in December — but we hadn’t quite realized how seriously some homeowners take Halloween, too.

I have never experienced a Halloween like that. It started out pretty tame, with some cool displays here and there and a decent number of kids and families, but soon we were trekking by what felt like Hollywood sets complete with professional lighting and roiling plumes of dry-ice fog, and the sidewalks were as packed as Disneyland.

It was delightful, and a little overwhelming, particularly as it got dark and the costumed crowds took on a disorienting offkey-carnival-music vibe as people loomed in and out of our increasingly tiny field of view. Riley was a little meh about the whole trick or treating thing and Dylan had a hard time pulling out of a funk related to getting busted for sneaking off with his cousin earlier in the evening (“But Charlie said it was okay!” “CHARLIE IS SEVEN!”) but all in all, everyone had fun.

We cut out early to come home, do a quick loop to visit a few neighbors, and settle in front of the TV with our laps full of chocolate. It was the perfect mix of tried-and-true, plus something new.

I have to say, our little family foursome has collectively and individually been stepping outside of our comfort zones lately — trying things we haven’t tried before, meeting new people, daring to do things that seem scary or just plain socially intimidating — and it isn’t always easy, but it’s almost always kind of great.


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