The Fish Bowl Won – A Lesson in Physics and Adaptation

Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, R. Psych.
Wishing Star Founder

A few evenings ago my 6 year old son was busily playing in his room as I got after the dinner dishes. My clean-up time was shortly interrupted by a loud crashing sound. Something about it sounded not quite right. I soon discovered that my son had decided to change the water in his glass fish bowl (for his robofish!). Only, fish bowls full of water are very heavy. He did actually make it to the sink – the porcelain sink – but the pull half-slipped/was half-tossed into the sink…I think largely in an effort to avoid spilling the water on the floor. Unfortunately, the fish bowl got the better of the sink. See visual. Oh. Dear. I arrive on the scene and follow my son’s worried gaze to the fish bowl in the sink. I don’t see the cracks in the sink at first but I quickly realize there is water dripping out of the vanity and figure out what has happened.

Broken Sink

One would think that my immediate reaction would be disappointment about the sink. However, knowing a little about my son’s sensitive temperament, and having spent much time recently chewing on the idea of adaptation, my immediate reaction was how my son was going to handle his disappointment about the sink. I knew for him to understand what had happened, to avoid repeating the same in the future, and most importantly, to move beyond his worry about the sink, he was going to first have to feel some sadness about having been the cause of the break.

The challenge is, if there is even the slightest bit of a sigh that escapes me, or a teeny tiny hardening of the smile on my face, or any other nonverbal hint that I am at all exasperated, my son’s disappointment will switch immediately to frustration and anger. He will deflect the blame to everyone and everything else. He will storm off. He will yell and stomp. And this is because, he cannot come to his tears – true, sad tears rather than yelly-shouty-angry tears – unless he feels absolutely safe in entering that state of vulnerability. We share sad tears only with those whom we have chosen as our comforters, and we select our chosen comforters based on who we will safe with – someone who is not going to throw our vulnerability back in our faces but who is going to safeguard it and cherish it. Someone who is going to comfort us rather than betray that vulnerability and play upon it.

And so I found my son, I read the look of worry on his face, and I immediately exclaimed “oh my goodness sweetie – are you okay? That must have really scared you.” He right away launched into how he wrecked the sink, and was his fish bowl broken too, and would daddy be mad, and where will we find a new sink??? I continued to reassure him that these things happen, everybody has accidents, we will figure it all out, I will help him, all will be well. And I knew I had him – I knew he was adapting and as a result, learning – when he started to cry real sad tears about how he was going to “really going to miss that sink – it was a really good sink mom.”

Now remember, the “goal” – to borrow that language from our behaviorist friends – is that my son understood what had happened and learned enough to avoid repeating the same in the future. And some people may think I was rather soft on my son who had just trashed a reasonably new sink! Indeed, so often we fall into that trap of trying to drive home those messages by activating alarm in our children…things like “wait until daddy gets home!” and “do you know how much a new sink costs?” and “what were you thinking!?!” And while these things might have our children avoiding a similar action in the future, the question we must ask ourselves is “AT WHAT COST?” Is it worth toying with a child’s emotions in that manner to arrive at this outcome? And has the child really learned their lesson or have we just freaked them out enough for them to know that they must avoid that same action in the future.

I can assure you, my son learned a lesson on the day of the broken sink. He learned that heavy things cannot land with force in sinks or sinks get broken. But, even more important, he learned that his mom understands him and that his mom can hold his worries in her caring heart. While the former is something that is perhaps an important lesson for him to pick up along the way, it is the latter that reigns supreme for me. I want my son to know those little rules and things that are going to help him be responsible day-to-day but more than that, I want him to know that no matter how big the “oops” there will always be someone there to keep him soft, to safeguard his vulnerability in coming to terms with where he messed up. In the bigger picture and in the longer term, this is what is truly important in helping my beautiful boy adapt to all that life throws at him.

P.S. New sink in stock. Counter top does not have to be re-cut. AND, the supplier is giving me a whopping discount – she liked the story

This blog posting is not a form of psychological counselling, advice, therapy, or assessment and should not be used as such by any individual. This blog posting is provided only as an article intended to encourage thought and discourse. For specific psychology related services, please contact an appropriate healthcare provider.


One Comment

  • Eileen Hopkins | 2014.01.20 at 9:19 AM

    Love, love, love this. It is so hard to see through these things and teach the lesson without destroying the heart. I wish I had had such wise guidance when I was actively parenting. Interesting that as a grandparent, this comes much more naturally. We are often “softer” with our grandchildren than we were with our children. Thanks for sharing such a compelling and true story!