“I want to stay here with Daddy!”
Every time I heard those words, pain would shoot through my heart. Not just the pain that comes from knowing your children are hurting and you cannot fix it, but also pain from the terrifying picture of my sons in prison. I knew they did not understand what they were saying, but the strong response that it elicited inside of me always produced a stern response of, “No, you do not want to be here!”
I spent many hours explaining to my two young sons that most of the time, only people who break the rules, called laws, go to jail. I was adamant that they did not EVER want to be in prison or jail. I was convinced that all of the lectures were working; at 4 and 5 ½ years old, my sons knew the importance of determining they would stay out of jail. I was just sure of it. Or so I thought. One of the hardest parts of raising children with their father in prison is helping them to understand the difference between wanting to be WITH their father and wanting to be WHERE their father is.
Soon after arriving back at home from shopping, my younger son, Brandon, presented some Band-Aids to me. “Look what I took from the store! I broke the law.” he proudly stated. I stood there feeling both stunned and shocked! Why would he steal? We had talked about how important it is to always do the right thing. He knew better.
I decided to take him back to the store and made him give the band-aids back.
The store manager was very nice and thanked us for returning the band-aids. As a matter of fact, he was so understanding that I was frustrated! “Don’t just thank us for doing the right thing after stealing! Tell my son how wrong it was and make him realize that this was a terrible mistake.” On the way home, we went over the rules and the laws again. Brandon assured me that he completely understood. Two days later, he did it again. This time it was a little car from a department store; then he did it again. This time it was window stickers from a drugstore. I was completely horrified!! What in the world was going on?
Each time, we marched back into the store to apologize and return the merchandise. I was starting to get really concerned. Why was my four year old son so intent on stealing? What was really going on? He knew better. Both Ron and I were making sure he heard the message very clearly, “Our family does not steal. We do not break laws.” And yet, he kept stealing.
I began keeping a closer eye on him and making him hold my hand and stand right next to me while we shopped.
It stopped the theft and we began to consider it a phase that he had gone through. Then, one evening, I stopped to get gas as I returned from a visit with Ron. As we pulled out of the gas station, Brandon produced a handful of Band-Aids he had taken out of a box near the checkout at the gas station. I was furious, and I was scared. I turned my car around, parked the car in front of the store and demanded that he get out and return them immediately. I was fed up!
As we walked into the store, I realized I needed to do something differently. Brandon handed the band-aids back to the manager and confessed that he had stolen them. I quickly spoke up and said, “Sir, we completely understand that you will probably need to call the police. We know that stealing is against the law.” The manager caught my message. He spoke to Brandon very firmly, stating in no uncertain terms that he would most definitely call the police if he ever heard of Brandon stealing anything from anywhere again. He used his gruffest voice and shook his finger in front of Brandon’s little-freckled nose. Brandon hung his head and said, “I understand.”
When we got back into the car, instead of crying or acting repentant, Brandon was smiling.
Brandon excitedly told Blake, “Only one more time and I get to go live with Daddy!” Realization hit me hard. Brandon didn’t want to steal. He wanted to live with his daddy. More than anything else in the world, he wanted to be with his daddy, that is why all the lectures, examples, and passionate responses weren’t working! Duh! Now that it was so clear, I was left wondering how Ron nor I had figured out the why behind his stealing.
That night, I talked with Brandon about how children do not get to live with their daddy in prison if they break the law. They go to another prison for children, and then they are away from both of their parents and all their friends and family. This time, he was the one who was shocked. He cried and cried – his little shoulders shaking as the tears streamed down his face, running unchecked off his chin. He explained how sorry he was that he had been stealing and that every time it was so hard to do the wrong thing, but he would just picture himself laughing and playing with his dad and then he would take something.
It was a brutal lesson for him to learn that life does not always go the way we want.
Often, we have no control over the circumstances around us, but we still must do the right thing and control ourselves. We always have the power to make our own choices. We always have the responsibility to do the right thing. Brandon never stole another thing in his life. While he learned a valuable lesson about stealing, I learned an even more valuable lesson about being a mom to sons with a dad in prison.
From that moment on, I began to be more sensitive to the trauma my sons were experiencing.
I saw times the circumstances they were living in threatened to influence their character or decisions. I was now able to gently point my boys in the right direction while also allowing them the opportunity for self-discovery and self-expression. While we had many more adventures and learning experiences, this was one of the most profound.
Children long to have their dad in their lives and will do whatever it takes to make that a reality. When we purposefully develop that relationship through letters, visits, and calls, we are not only helping to keep our family intact, we are also actively helping our children to heal and overcome the trauma of the separation. Growing up is hard; growing up with your parent in prison is nearly impossible. Lead the way for them by example, mindful attention to the impact of prison on your children, and active pursuit of your family’s dreams.
Always remember, we are rooting for you!
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