"Kiddo, your cheeks are so red," I say, brushing my fingers gently over the almost perfectly round spots that have developed after a day of windy bike riding, running, chasing, and occasionally dressing up as Spiderman or Green Lantern. Today has been one for the books, one of the best that we've had collectively in a while. Raising five children ranging from five years old to thirteen years old is no walk in the park. Often, if three out of five are having a good day, then we get to count that as a collective win.
This day, however, had been a good day for all five kiddos, and it was time for bed. C is hanging on the gate that keeps the doggos from joining him in his bed at night and grinning at me and for just a moment all is well.
"Oliver smacked me," he says. His face is deadpan and he's looking into my eyes, but I know the truth. He's trying to justify his red cheeks while also trying to get his younger brother in trouble. It's what kids do. It's totally normal, but it is also really complicated in our world.
"C, I know for a fact that isn't true," I say. And I'm 100% confident in this moment that he didn't get smacked by Oliver. The number one reason I know this is because I was with all of them all day. I watched them ride and play and run and jump. Heck, I ran and jumped and rode with them most of the day. The second reason I know that isn't true is because I didn't referee any fights between them. If any of the kids get remotely injured by another one, I always find out. Remember, they are brothers, and they like to tattle on each other.
He immediately burst into tears. I tried to talk him through it, but he was too upset. At that moment, I wasn't really sure why, so I told him to brush his teeth and that I would be back to read to him in a few minutes. I read to Oliver and went about our lengthy nighttime routine. When I go back into C's room, I can hear him crying. It's heartbreaking. A mix of quiet sobs and sniffles, I walk up to his bunk bed and pat him on the back.
"Kiddo, why are you still crying?" I ask.
"You used your hateful voice with me. I hate it when you do that," he says through gasps.
"Baby, I wasn't using my hateful voice. That was my firm voice. That's the voice that tells you that you made a bad choice. If I said everything in my regular voice, you might not listen to me when I really need you to." I try to make him laugh with my examples, but my attempts are in vain.
"You've just made me so sad," he says. I take a moment and think about it before I respond. I'm trying to do that more.
"Did I make you sad, or do you feel sad because you made a bad choice?" I know the answer before I ask it, and he tells the truth.
"Kiddo, that means your heart is working. Your heart is supposed to tell you when you've made a bad choice. Your heart is helping you grow into a good, kind person. It hurts a little bit though, doesn't it?" I ask him. He nods, tears still rolling like a summer thunderstorm.
"Come here," I say and pull him into a hug. "We're all growing. We're all getting better. And your heart is going to keep telling you what to do. Make sure that you are listening to it."
In our world, all of our hearts are working overtime. Some are working on getting better at empathy. Some are working on making room for other people’s feelings and emotions. Some are working on helping us make good choices, even when it isn’t easy. The best part? All of our hearts are working together to get better.