“You cheated!” I snarled as I brought my fist down hard on the kitchen table.
Our accused 9-year-old, a fourth-grader, stared back at me with a blank look like she didn’t know what I was talking about. That, of course, infuriated me even more.
“You cannot write the answer on your hand, Anna,” I said, breaking the eerie silence that had fallen over our dinner.
“I just used it to study it during the day,” Anna said. “I didn’t even look at it during the competition.”
“That is not the point,” I said, glaring at her. “If you wanted to study it, you should have written it down on a piece of paper, not on your hand.”
“Our teacher doesn’t want us writing on papers during class,” she said, still with that dumbfounded look on her face.
“You can’t use paper in your classroom?” I roared. “Look, you can’t write answers on your hand. That is cheating. Luckily, this was just a practice for the real competition in March, but you need to understand that this was cheating and that I am very disappointed in you.”
“OK, daddy,” she said quietly.
Anna is very smart. Generally, she knows right from wrong better than most children her age. But sometimes she is not confident that she knows things as well as she should. I assumed that was why she’d written down one of the answers for her practice competition.
What upset me the most, though, was that she did not seem to understand the seriousness of her actions.
Later that evening, I went into my room to grab something. I found this note on my night stand:
I’m so, so sorry. I really didn’t want you to be upset. I really, really should not have done that dumb idea. I don’t know what I was thinking. You’re right. I should listen to you. I washed it completely off. I solmenly (sic) swear not to do it ever again. I’m so sorry from the bottom of my heart.
Love you with all my heart,
I left my room completely forgetting why I had gone in. I looked for our daughter and thanked her for her mature letter and her understanding of the situation. As I gave her a big hug, I had a hard time holding back tears.
The next evening, my wife and I went to a wedding without the kids. She had not been home during the incident, so I explained what had happened.
“You know,” she said after I finished, “I think Anna told me they can use their notes during their practice competitions.”
My heart sank. Maybe Anna wasn’t cheating at all.
As soon as I had a chance, I asked Anna to explain how her practices work. She said students can use their notes during practice. She usually doesn’t because she wants to be better prepared for the real competition.
This one particular answer, however, was difficult to pronounce, so she wrote it down so she could practice in her head. She put it on her hand instead of pulling out her notes because her teacher would not have appreciated the potential distraction to other students. She tried to wash the answer off her hand before she went to practice, but she couldn’t get all the ink off.
Anna obviously had thought this through carefully and come up with a reasonable solution. One of the most important things I tell our children is that they need to solve their own problems.
I put my hands on her shoulders and looked her straight in the eye, trying to hide my disgust at my behavior. “Anna, I’m very sorry. You did nothing wrong, and I should not have gotten upset with you. I’m so proud of you for coming up with your own solution and for writing such a mature letter.”
In the end, Anna wasn’t the cheater.
Al Watts is the President of Daddyshome, Inc. – The National At-Home Dad Network and an at-home dad of four children living in west Omaha. Read him Wednesdays on momaha.com