Monday, January 24, 2011

Amnesty Hour

Last Friday I was working at a satellite hospital in a smaller town. The work was light, which was a relief after all of the snow craziness the day before - getting babysitters for kids, arranging for possible overnight lodging which I thankfully did not have to use. I sat down for lunch with some of the lab techs.

I'm not sure how the conversation ended up on kids and discipline, but one of the techs said that even though her kids are almost out of high school, for years they had an amnesty hour every day, usually at mealtimes, where they could talk about anything and not get in trouble. Her kids would talk about things that happened at school, discuss words they overheard but didn't know the meaning to, etc. She started when they were in elementary school. The tech discussed some of the more interesting revelations that came out in teenage years. Then she said that once, when her daughter was eight, she asked her what a "blow job" was - she had heard a kid say it at school. After the mom almost fell out of her chair, she said, "well, that is something for adults and you will learn more about it in a few years." That seemed to satisfy her daughter for the time being, and I think it was a nice, age appropriate response to close the door for a little while.

The idea got me thinking, and on Sunday morning when the kids and I were snuggling in late, I explained it to them. My kids are only 5 and 7 - we certainly don't need a whole hour, maybe not even once a day. When it was Cecelia's (7) turn, after expressing incredulity about being able to say anything and not get in trouble, she talked about a boy at her school and how he was mean to other kids, and what he did. Jack's conversation turned to a couple of the more intense fights he had with his sister over the last year - both I remembered well, when her teasing and torments pushed him to physical retaliation. This was a little awkward considering Cecelia was in the room, but it was nice to hear his side, what stuck with him and his feelings. I think it was good for Cecelia to hear, too - her opinions and words tend to overbear his unless there is someone around to check her and force her to listen. Her teacher tells me that most kids her age need to learn to listen more and talk less, and she is no exception. Most importantly I was there to mediate and comment on their reflections of scary subjects.

Later on that day, we were playing a new card game in front of the fireplace my mom bought us called Spot It! I can't wait until Jack can read - our repertoire of family board games will branch out tremendously. This one is fun because you have to look at both cards, each with about 10 pictures on it, and the first person to spot the match wins the hand. They teamed up against me, and after they narrowly won three games (I know I shouldn't admit this, cause I would never want them to know but I do let them win at this age - I have an unfair advantage of highly developed visual recognition skills - hell I'm a pathologist - and it makes them so happy to beat me - but it shocks me how close I actually come to losing for real as they are getting older), I told them I was determined to win one game before dinner. As I started winning Cecelia completely lost her cool, focus, and her game. She forced me to continue but by the end she melted down in tears of frustration and post losing accusations of cheating - she was a little worn out all weekend from a sleepover Friday night - and when I told her we weren't going to play again since she wasn't having fun, she dissolved in sadness and anger. I sent her to her room to calm down, eventually telling her she'd better go before I lost my cool.

When I wandered back into her room about ten minutes later, we were lying on the bed hashing it all out. She was in a better place, and listened. I was less frustrated, and listened. We talked about the meaning of "sore loser," - she has such a competitive streak we have to do this talk over and over (like mother like daughter). Suddenly, when we were in a good place, I leaned over to her. "Amnesty hour without Jack. Come on. Lay it on me." She talked about how sometimes she hated Jack so much. Then she struggled with something, and I encouraged her, even though she worried aloud about saying it. Finally she said, "Remember just now when you told me you were going to lose your cool? And sent me to my room? I was thinking how you didn't really have any in the first place. You know, cool." I had seen the sway in her backside and the swish of her hair as she marched down the hall and it fit her thought perfectly. I laughed inside, and told her, "Cecelia, you want to know the truth? I'm glad you didn't say that to me when we were both really mad and upset, but if we were kind of joking around? About me losing my cool? The cool I never really had? That would have been a really funny thing to say."

How about readers? Any thoughts, suggestions, remembrances, or ideas about how to get your kids to open up on hard subjects? I can see that as they are navigating rougher waters in school, it will be really important to stay in touch without being too overbearing.


  1. I think the idea of amnesty hour is fabulous. I may have to consider implementing this.

  2. No ideas on how to do this well (my daughter is only 2) but I am going to store this one away as something to use myself... GREAT idea.

  3. No ideas on how to do this well (my daughter is only 2) but I am going to store this one away as something to use myself... GREAT idea.

  4. It worked again tonight! My son brought it up b/c he wanted to tell me about something (relatively benign - funny to think what they are scared to talk about) at school today. He said, "I won't get in trouble, right?"

  5. This is a fabulous idea! Thank you for sharing!

  6. I think "amnesty hour" is a great idea! We do a thing sort of like that with our son, but we don't have a name for it.

  7. What a FANTASTIC idea. I hope this works with my (possible future) kids someday.

    Your post made me laugh because it reminds me of me re: competitiveness. My mom *loves* to tell the story about how I learned to play checkers when I was 5ish, came home from pre-school and played with her, and won the first 3 games. Then, when *somehow* I lost the 4th game, I threw a fit. I still remember flipping the board up in the air and all the pieces going flying. This extreme reaction must have happened several times, because I never learned to behave myself until my mom followed through on her threat and tossed the game into the trash. Oh, the horrors! To throw away a perfectly good game! I was quite contrite and was good with checkers from then on. I had to learn the same lesson with my Old Maid deck of cards a little later, though. :)

  8. @ Forever Rhonda - we are getting so much mileage out of it! I love the idea too.

    @ anon - very funny. Sounds like my Cecelia exactly. You should see our Old Maid games - the challenge is not in the game, but in dealing with Cecelia's losses.


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