It doesn’t take long for a nice, normal day to become a disaster. Last week, it took 12 minutes at my house.
Black Friday took on a new meaning for us this year. I left for work and left Dawit watching television while everyone else was enjoying a chance to sleep in or at least relax a little on the holiday from school.
Twelve minutes after I left, Dawit started a science experiment that was not commissioned or condoned by anyone other than himself. He turned on the gas fireplace in an effort to warm up the living room. A few moments later, a thought crossed his mind. Seconds later, he had checked to make sure his mother was still in bed and he had begun lighting pieces of newspaper on fire simply to watch it burn.
We have a security system that recorded the entire experiment. The first small piece of paper fell on the carpet when it became too hot to hold. Small singe marks on the carpet were all that resulted from his first attempt. Attempt number two made it several steps away from the fireplace before he dropped the burning paper on the floor leaving more burned carpet.
It didn’t take Dawit long to figure out that he needed more paper to avoid the flames burning his hand. So the third trip — after checking to see where his mother was again — included an entire newspaper circular. He caught it on fire, looked at it for a short time, and then realized he had bitten off more than he could chew. He was holding a torch and had not bothered to plan on how to extinguish the fire once he accomplished getting it going.
At that point, Dawit did what anyone would do. He ran with the fire to his room and put it on the floor. A square foot of black carpet is a memento from the Black Friday fire fun. I am not sure how my smoke alarms weren’t sounding. I remember waving smoke away from my parent’s smoke detectors anytime something spilled in the oven.
At this point, my wife smelled the burning plastic and paper and went to check it out. She discovered some of the very minor damage when she inspected the fireplace. Then she found a little more. Then she went in the garage to get a bottle of water and found a large section of burned newspaper.
Then she checked the video. The incredibly frightening few minutes of watching Dawit risk his life, everyone else’s life and the home we live in during his attempt to satisfy his curiosity was gut wrenching. After seeing the video, my wife discovered the large burned spot on the carpet in his room and that’s when she called me at work.
Obviously, I stayed remarkably calm and reacted in a very mature way and never got especially angry. (Since I edit my own columns, no one will know any different.)
When I was able to get home, I discovered that my son had actually made it outside and started a small grass fire as well. He was really lucky. We all were.
We could have lost everything — he could have even affected neighbors if the outside fire wouldn’t have gone out on its own.
Twelve minutes. That’s all the time he had and it was all the time he needed.
This is when you find out that parenting isn’t for the weak. It was going to take a lot of love to discipline him well without being mean simply because you are mad that part of your Christmas budget is now going to a new carpet fund.
Obviously, the little guy was grounded from everything he enjoys. That’s always a good start. Fortunately, I work with some smart people and when we talked about it, the idea came up to make him report his crimes to the authorities.
So I emailed the fire chief and set up a meeting with Dawit, the Chief and the Fire Marshall.
I went home from work and told Dawit that reports are made every time there is a fire. He is the main witness to this fire so he had to write a report of what happened to include what he did, why he did it and why he would never do it again. Then he would have to make his report to the Fire Chief.
As he was finishing the report, he came into my room teary eyed and said, “Duh la rom na jjaa.” I had no idea. So I asked, “What are you trying to say?”
He sniffed back some tears and composed himself just enough to ask in exasperation, “Do you think they’ll make me go to juvy?” I hate to pat myself on the back too much, but I didn’t even crack a smile. That was tough.
Also, I don’t know which one of his little felon friends is teaching Dawit about “juvy” but it wasn’t me. I told him I was his dad and, while he has to take responsibility for what happened, I will always be at his side to try to help.
He finished his letter and we made the trip the next day. After I made him take the two-block walk from my office to the fire station, the Fire Chief and Fire Marshall were wonderful. They were stern but kind. They heard his testimony and asked some questions. They even gave him two assignments to make sure he knew about fire safety and made him promise to make sure his friends knew to be careful with fire as well.
That was a pretty solid effort at discipline that might make a difference. He had to take responsibility and face consequences head on. I haven’t heard “yes sir” that often since the last time I watched “Full Metal Jacket.”
The next proof that parenting isn’t for the weak is when it came time for Dawit to wish for his Elf on the Shelf to return this year. I wasn’t sure if he believed in the magic elf or if he just played along. I found out Friday.
He wished for the elf to return Friday on Dec. 1.
Instead, “Joe the Elf” wrote a note saying how much he missed Dawit and how he wished he could come, but Santa said some bad things had happened in the house and he couldn’t come back until Dawit was back on the Nice List.
The only problem was Dawit read the first few words and got so upset that he threw down the note and cried. I asked what the note said and made him read it to the end.
“See, you did one bad thing, but that isn’t the only thing you’ve done,” I said. “Sure, setting a fire will land you on the Naughty List, but you have spent the rest of your life on the Nice List. You need to do more of those things you have always done and fix it.”
Luckily that worked.
He got busy getting ready for school. He did his chores. He was talking about all of the good things he was going to do the rest of the day.
Discipline is hard. You love your kids and only want good things for them. But if you really love them, you realize discipline makes their lives better.
Parenting isn’t for the weak. It is tough, but nothing is more rewarding than watching good boys and girls growing into great young men and women.
— Kent Bush is publisher of Shawnee (Oklahoma) News-Star and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.