We have a bouquet of flowers in a vase that is rapidly approaching “done” status, with some flowers reaching “done” sooner than others. The other day, Mitzi received the gift of a rose that had gone a little brown and crispy, but still had the shape and overall appearance of a beautiful long-stemmed rose. She was very happy with it.
After work on Tuesday, I asked Mitzi to take a walk with me to the library. It’s a little shy of a mile, but it’s a walk she has made many times before; no sweat for an energetic three-year-old. Mitzi wanted to bring her new rose and I couldn’t think of any reason not to. If she got tired of carrying it, I could just put it in my library bag. Easy job.
As we walked, Mitzi waved her rose around, running along walls, touching it to other flowers, watching it bob with the wind. We came to a large puddle and as she crossed it, she dipped her rose in the water, probably to see what, if anything, would happen to the petals.
As it happened, they got wet.
“Daddy,” she called to me, “could you dry my petals off?”
“Sorry, little girl,” I said, “It’s wet. You’re going to have to wait for them to dry off by themselves.”
Mitzi seemed a little perturbed by this and experimented with squeezing the rose a bit, wiping it, shking it out. As she shook it, one petal disconnected and drifted to the ground.
“A petal fell off,” she said.
“Yep,” I said. “That’s what happens if you shake an old rose.”
I walked on a bit up the block and, after a few seconds, I heard her little footfalls running up behind me. She took my hand.
“Daddy!” she said, a tinge of excitement in her voice, “I squashed my rose!”
I looked back and indeed the sidewalk was littered with the remains of the rose. The long stem lay amidst the scattered petals.
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
“I didn’t want it anymore,” she replied.
“Well, alright then,” I said, “I guess it was your rose.”
We walked on to the library, read a few books and headed back towards the house.
A block or so from the library, Mitzi said, “I wonder if we’re going to see my rose!”
“We may,” I said, “I don’t remember which block it was on, but we’ll probably pass it.”
We walked on.
“Do you think we’ll see my rose?” Mitzi asked again, her voice betraying a slight hint of anxiety.
“We’ll find out when we get there,” I said.
We walked some more.
“I don’t think my rose is there anymore,” Mitzi said, “I think a bird took it.”
“Well,” I said, “It was in a lot of pieces. And, again, I don’t remember exactly which block it was on. If it’s still there, we’ll see it.”
“I don’t think it’s there,” she said. And, I couldn’t tell if she thought that was a good thing or a bad thing.
After walking a bit more, I glanced up ahead and announced, “Mitz! Look! I think I see your rose!”
Mitzi followed my gaze across the street. Up ahead, the sidewalk was covered with bright red petals.
“My rose!” she cried out. And, taking my hand, she and I hurried across the road.
When she got to the scene of destruction, she stooped down and picked something up.
“Here’s the stem!” she cried, waving it about.
“There’s the stem!” I agreed.
“Here’s the petals!” she said, gesturing at the petals.
“There they are!” I said, “Okay, we’d better get home; it’s getting late.”
I walked on a bit and turned to glance back. Mitzi hadn’t moved. She was standing, holding the stem and looking about at the petals. She had a look on her face I’d never seen before. She looked confused and hesitant. But, there was something else under it all. A new feeling. I could tell she was having trouble with it.
“Daddy?” she said.
“Yes, little girl?”
“I wish you could put the petals back on the stem.”
“Oh, I see. Well, I can’t. Once the petals come off the stem, they can’t go back on.”
“Oh,” she said. “Daddy?”
“Yes, little girl?”
“I wish you could glue the petals back on. I wish you could do that.”
“I see. Well, I can’t. Petals don’t work that way.”
“Oh,” she said. “Daddy?”
“Yes, little girl?”
“I wish I didn’t squash the rose,” she said. And she dropped the stem. And she walked to me. And her face collapsed. And she sobbed. Hard. Big, sad, scared, confused sobs. I scooped her up and she draped herself on my shoulder as tears flowed onto my shirt.
“I wish I didn’t squash the rose!” she repeated. And I realized what the strange new feeling was that she was struggling with.
“Mitzi?” I said, “I think what you’re feeling is regret. It’s called regret. Do you wish you hadn’t squashed your rose?”
“Yes,” she sobbed.
“Do you feel bad about squashing the rose?”
“Yes!” she sobbed.
“What do you wish you could do?”
“I wish I could not squash the rose!” she said.
“Do you feel bad that you hurt the rose?”
“Yes!” she cried.
“Oh, little girl. You’re feeling ‘regret’ and it’s a big important feeling that you’ve never experienced before. Regret means that you did something and you wish you hadn’t done it but it’s too late. And now you have to live with what you’ve done. It’s a big big feeling and I’m so happy I could be here with you because it’s hard for little kids to feel regret. But, it also means that you’re a good person who cares about what they’ve done.”
“I wish I didn’t squash the rose!” she said.
“I know,” I said, “But, you did. And you regret doing it.”
I carried her the rest of the way home, her tears soaking my shoulder.
Mitzi cried all through dinner, barely touching the food on her plate. She kept saying she wished she hadn’t done what she’d done.
“What would you do if you had another rose?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t squash it!” she said.
“Would you take care of it?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “Do you think Momma will let me have another rose?”
“Well, that’s up to Momma,” I said.
Eventually, the tears tapered off and Mitzi got to bed. But, she kept reminding me that she wished she hadn’t squashed the rose.
As it turned out, the next day there was a new “done” rose available and Mitzi received it with a reminder about what had happened the day before.
Now, Mitzi has a new rose. But, here’s the thing, she still says, “I wish I didn’t squash that rose.” And, she takes care of the new one. She is very gentle with it. She knows now what can happen to a rose and how that makes her feel. She still regrets her actions and she has modified her behavior because of that regret. And, she is a little bit older and little bit wiser for that.
Mitzi has been a bit of a terror recently. A lot of that has to do with these big new feelings that she has no words and no context for. They’re just “big” and confusing. But, she’s learning.
A rose is a beautiful but delicate thing. It can be damaged quite accidentally even by someone who cares for it very much. We’ve all done this. We all do stupid, selfish things that hurt other people. People we love very much. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have regrets. But, having regrets is meaningless if we don’t learn from them. If we don’t accept responsibility for what we did, and vow to never do it again. And that vow is meaningless if we don’t demonstrate that we can do something different this time.
Mitzi can’t undo what she did – that rose is squashed and a rose, once squashed, is always a rose that has been squashed – but she can treat her next rose with gentleness, never forgetting what she did, not dwelling on her mistakes, but learning from them.
I’m very proud of my little girl.