Sometimes our most formative learning experiences come from what we choose to own up to—and if our parents let us make that choice.
It took Dad hundreds of hours to build it, and only a few seconds for me to bust it. I now live in Boston and, out of what is likely sheer guilt, I’ve yet to visit the real-life version of the USS Constitution that my father crafted into a beautiful replica model when I was a kid. I’ve driven by the museum yard in Charlestown harbor many times, and have never ventured onto the ship (despite the pull of the former history major in me). Guilt festering into shame can do that. Even after more than 35 years.
Shame has a way of rusting things in our family lives. We learn as kids about becoming accountable for ourselves when we hurt or displace others. Parents, in how they handle these crossroad moments when kids are to blame, can help them learn to come clean. For kids, parents can model awareness of what’s actually going on, and keep from either descending into the depths of unnecessary shame, or walking away from responsibility altogether.
My Dad spent many evenings sitting at our kitchen table (the one he’d made himself in his woodshop) assembling the hull and decks of his three-foot-long model. No detail was spared—he hand-painted every miniature crew member, strung up a complicated array of string for the ship’s riggings, and carefully placed the dozens of cannons in their individual slots in the hull. There was even the detail of the Captain’s chamber at the back of the boat, with furniture and accoutrement of the ship’s commander painted and mounted in place. I could bend down and imagine the meetings the Captain had there with his officers, the battle plans made and ocean charts consulted. There were likely even disciplinary discussions had there at the desk—much like the one my older brother and I faced when my Dad came home that Saturday.
Shame has a way of rusting things in our family lives.
“I’m heading out for a while,” Dad had said. He didn’t even need to say anything to remind us. It was well-ingrained by this point. We were absolutely forbidden to go into his room to mess with his freshly finished USS Constitution. And my Dad’s car door had barely closed, his car’s engine not yet hot, when I walked into the room to have a look.
Unusual for me to be the intrepid one. That was usually reserved for my Eagle Scout older brother—he was the one who threw a cigar and beer party at our house for all his buddies while my parents were away—the acting out the Mr. Hyde to my passive, quiet, pensive Dr. Jekyll. He three-wheeled his all-terrain bike to the limits of human sanity and safety out in the trails behind our house while I two-wheeled my ten-speed to my friend Neal’s house for cartoons and Dungeons and Dragons fantasy game play.
And yet I was the one who just had to poke at the main mast of Dad’s ship.
“You’re going to bust it,” Todd said as he watched me. “You know, Dad told us to leave it…”
He couldn’t even get his reminder out before I’d done it. I pressed at the mast just a tad too much. The whole thing teetered on its plastic stand and went over the back of the desk there in the bedroom. I expected to see an absolute shipwreck there on their hardwood floor. Instead, it looked pretty much intact lying on its starboard side, just a bit of listing and no real damage—all except for that main mast. The thing had snapped about two-thirds of the way up, dangling in the rigging like a stick caught in a spider’s webbing.
And so did I in those moments of first recognition. I surged with anxiety and my impending view of the childhood gallows that awaited me when Dad returned.
My brother would be there when Dad came back. The one who I shared a bedroom with, the one I warred with endlessly. The one who out-worked me in hauling wood, shoveling snow or anything physical. The one I bested in anything academic.
He would surely rat me out.
He just stood as I fumbled with the mast. He shook his head as I vainly tried to prop the mast back up into place with tape. I hoped my Dad wouldn’t notice—at least for a couple of days. My Dad is an engineer. He lives in physical details. Who was I kidding?
“I only want to ask this once,” Dad said as he stood in front of us in the hallway outside his bedroom. Mind you, my Dad is a large man. He’s not especially tall, but he’s broad-shouldered and has a powerful look to his arms. I’d seen him swing axes and shoot hand-made flintlock rifles with barely a ripple of his frame. And that frame now towered in front of me.
“Who did it?”
Cue the firing squad. There would be no need for a trial. My brotherly eyewitness would give the judge all the evidence he needed.
I stood in paralyzed silence waiting for the axe to fall. My brother waited as well. I expected jubilation, laughter, the applause that said “Ha, ha—the goody-goody is finally getting his.” But it didn’t come.
“Last chance,” Dad said. “Who did—”
“I did,” said my brother, literally stepping forward.
To this day, I’m not absolutely certain why my brother took the hit for me. As an adult, and at the retelling of this family legend for the hundredth time around a holiday dinner table, he still couldn’t fully explain it. He spoke of feeling badly for me. Of being worried for me since I rarely was rarely in my Dad’s crosshairs.
And so he took his punishment without a word. Banished to our bedroom, he was thunderously told that he would be relieved of all outings and friend-shenanigans for an unbelievable, and ultimately, untenable amount of time.
Me? I likely sat more quietly than usual that night as I poked at my dessert, which I could barely choke down due to the guilty nub jutting out into the gap of my throat.
I’m sure Dad knew I was the one who broke his model. The bottom line for me is that he had the presence of mind to let me come to accountability on my own. He didn’t squeeze it out of me. He (and I’m sure with consultation with Mom) held his tongue and let that guilty nub in my throat grow goiter-like until I could no longer breathe until I gasped out the truth.
Here’s the thing—I think my parents were also well aware of my sensitivity. My Dad was certainly well-versed in my interest in his precious ship. He’d watched me watching him make the model. What he didn’t know was that it was less the ship that fascinated me—it was the diligent, quiet passion he poured into its creation. A similar passion I find in myself in moments like this as I write.
I’m sure Dad knew I was the one who broke his model. He tells me now he doesn’t remember having known at the time. And I’ve told the story too often to know for sure if there was evidence one way or the other. The bottom line for me is that he had the presence of mind to let me come to accountability on my own. He didn’t squeeze it out of me. He (and I’m sure with consultation with Mom) held his tongue and let that guilty nub in my throat grow goiter-like until I could no longer breathe until I gasped out the truth.
I admitted my true guilt and took my own lumps (larger than they would likely have been in the first place if I’d fessed up) for having broken Dad’s ship and broken trust by lying.
My brother stepped forward and, despite our feud (which continued in earnest across the years of our cohabitation), taught about responsibility for others. My Dad stayed in place and, despite his anger and disappointment, held them in check until I could do the internal work of owning things, and thereby taught about accountability for oneself.
There’s patience in these woodworkers, these engineers, that those of us in the helping professions—all of us as parents—can learn from.
The USS Constitution still floats in Boston harbor, and my Dad’s version now sits safely (and out of my reach) in a glass case in Dad’s den in Orlando.
The mast is still a bit bent. Not because Dad couldn’t fix it. I’m betting he leaves it there as a silent, gentle reminder.
Pause & Practice
Close your eyes and let the mind drift toward something you might choose to fess up to in your role as a parent—that guilty “thing” inside that you avoid shining the light on over in that dark corner. With eyes closed and breathing steady, shine the light on it in your attention. Watch it with open, non-flinching awareness. What is most “alive” as you keep the light on it? What might you do about this now that you’re looking at squarely? Do it if you’re willing.