One of my greatest parenting moments is when one of my kid’s friends are at the house and they spill something. It doesn’t matter if it’s a drink, or soup, it can be anything. Without exception the kid takes on an expression of sheer panic, looking around the room ready for the heckfire and darnnation to come upon them, for the lights in the room to flicker on and off and for me, the patriarch of the home, to come unglued and ask the question echo’d around dining rooms for centuries, “Why did you do that!? Come on, clean it up, I can’t believe you spilled, do you know how many times I’ve told you not to spill!?”
In the situation mentioned above, typically the child’s shoulders will slump, their head will go down, chin touching chest, and a solitary tear will run down their face, and at that point the rest of dinner is ruined. In my home, again, without exception, the following occurs. Kid spills drink, soup, etc., laughter erupts, and several people get up to get something to clean up the spill. Drink, soup, etc., is refilled, more laughter is had, and dinner continues. But it wasn’t always this way!
I remember rather clearly as a parent of four young children the constant spills, as well as plates, bowls and anything else that can hold food finding it’s way to the floor, and this typically happened right as my wife or I was finally sitting down to eat after getting everybody else situated. Or it happened right as we were trying to hurriedly clean up, no doubt running a bit late for whatever else we had planned for the day. To this day, our dogs sit and stare motionless at the floor during dinner, statue-like, just waiting for somebody to send something to the ground for them to devour (and nowadays things are dropped on purpose because the dogs are old, and my kids think they deserve a scrap or two since the spills are far and few between).
The point being that I feel fairly confident as a father, as a therapist, and as a human being in general, that none of my kids, or your kids or the kids visiting our home woke up that morning and thought, “what can I do today to make my parents angry? Got it, I’ll spill something during dinner! They’ll never see that coming, and then I’ll sit back and watch the chaos unfold!” Kids are kids and spills happen, they’ve happened in the past, and they’ll happen in the future. I’m sure that in prehistoric times there were caveman kids spilling saber-toothed tiger milk from their rock-like cups (can you tell I’m a child from the Flintstones era) and in the future kids will, well, they’ll drop their pills that contain all of the nutrition and hydration they’ll need for the day (shoutout now to the Jetsons!). I’m surprised that spills don’t happen more often based on the dexterity and attention span of most kids. And on that note, I’m convinced that the juice box was invented by someone who actually despised children because forget trying to get the little spear-like straw into the eye-of-a-needle sized hole without some spillage!
And in the vein of being truly authentic, do you want to know what inspired this article? I just kicked over a bottle of flavored water (OK, OK, it was diet soda) on the floor of my office AGAIN and there was no part of me that thought, “man, I know I’m busy right now but I think I’ll spice things up a bit, kick this bottle over and spend the next 10 minutes trying to clean up this mess.”
Our goal is to build up our children, to edify them, to help them along the path of living up to their full potential. No, no, I’m not going down the “every kid needs a trophy” path, but we want our kids to be able to come to us when they need us, to feel comfortable knowing that we’re there for them, that we have their back, that we love them. But if we overreact to an inadvertent spill, how on earth do we expect them to come to us to help them process the intricacies of teenage dating, friendships, insecurities, college and career choices or the myriad of other things that go through their minds.
As a therapist who does a fair amount of work with teenagers I once again can use an “all or nothing” statement with confidence when I say that EVERY teenager that I’ve worked with over the years has shared with me that yes, their parents have in fact told them that they want their teens to come to them with any problem, to share anything with them. And then when the teen inevitably needs their parents help, and comes to them with something that the parents don’t want to hear, the parents freak out! You can see where that’s going to lead? Yeah, that teen isn’t going to come open up to the parent anytime soon.
So not reacting to a spill, or, better yet, reacting POSITIVELY to something that is simply part of life is a powerful way to connect with your kids early on, period. It’s a way to set the stage for having them feel more comfortable coming to you with more important challenges later on in life. Roll with the spills and eventually you’ll be right there beside them helping them roll with the larger ticket items they face as they grow up, and as a parent, don’t you want to be the one they come to? Besides, some day when you’re in a nice home somewhere and they’ve come for a visit with the great grandkids, you’ll want them to help you clean up that prune juice that you just spilled, because you’ll swear you didn’t mean to!
Tony Overbay is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the creator of The Path Back, an online pornography recovery program. You can download a free copy of Tony’s “5 Common Mistakes Christians Make Attempting to Break Free from Pornography Addiction” here.