Monday, November 8, 2010

"License, Insurance, & Registration, Please"

The learning opportunity was mine Friday.

We drove over a bump in the road as we coasted down the hill, and the car felt like it was sailing.  I knew immediately I was going too fast.  So did the policeman driving the opposite direction.  I watched in my side view mirror as the patrol car pulled over to the side of the road, waited for the cars behind him to pass, and then turned around into my lane.  It was no surprise when the lights flashed behind me, so I pulled over and waited for my doom.

In the meantime, the kids noticed everything.

"Mommy, why did you say 'uh-oh'?" Ben asked.

I figured this was a good time to model the concepts I'm trying to teach them: owning up to your mistakes, accepting the consequences, and moving on.  So I answered honestly:  "I was going too fast down that hill, and the policeman noticed.  I'm probably going to get a ticket for going too fast."

This was a good exercise for me in taking responsibility, since I tend to blame all my tickets on the (obviously) ridiculous and unfair cops on the other side of the window.  But as I've had to explain the  job and role of policemen to Ben and Abby over the years, I've also had to concede that they do, in fact, exist to maintain the safety and well-being of the general public and that they aren't just driving around looking for opportunities to ruin people's days (the glaring exception here is, of course, the Morrison cops, who gleefully stalk the worst speed trap in the country... And maybe a young officer in Idaho, but that's another story).

It may sound strange, but I was actually a wee bit grateful for this incident.  Over the years, Ben has grown irate at the idea of a policemen giving people tickets.  He used to give long soliloquies about how he would drive away fast if a policeman pulled him over or how he'd tear up the ticket if he got one.  I've tried explaining that this response would simply make things worse, resulting in an arrest or in losing his license, but he just comes up with more grandiose methods of escaping the punishment.

I'll admit to fretting at times about his attitude toward authority: it's clearly not the policeman's fault if someone breaks the law, and people who follow the rules have no reason to fear cops.  Police really do have the public's interests at heart, even the dreaded highway patrol: there are fewer accidents in the areas that cops patrol regularly.  People really are safer when cops regulate speed.  But it had seemed much of this rationale fell on deaf, or defensive, ears.

To my relief, this attitude of his has subsided lately, and he's actually talked about wanting to be a policeman when he grows up.  He even wanted to be one for Halloween, but we did our costume shopping too late, so there weren't any officer costumes left in his size.

Still, there were times I thought it might be valuable if Ben saw me get a ticket so he could see that getting one does not come from a policeman's meanness but as a natural consequence to breaking the rules.   Police officers are generally nice, normal people--not bad guys out to get us.  Here was Ben's opportunity to witness this truth first hand, and I was well aware of it.

The two officers came to the passenger side window and asked for my license, insurance, and registration.  They asked if I knew why I was being pulled over, and I answered honestly: I was going too fast.  When they left, the kids asked why they needed all those papers, so I explained they needed that information to make sure there wasn't a record of any other laws I had broken.  "What happens if they found something wrong?" they asked.  "Well, I'd have to pay the consequence for that, too.  But I know I haven't broken any laws, so I don't have anything to worry about."

When the officers returned, they handed me the ticket and the rest of my documents, explaining the details of when and where I could go to court and contest the ticket before a judge if I wanted.  I nodded as they spoke, and when they finished, I apologized.

"I am sorry," I said, hoping I sounded sincere.  "I didn't realize how fast I got going there."

"That's okay, Ma'am," the officer said.  "I don't take it personally, and I hope you don't either.  Try not to let this ruin your day."  With that encouragement, they walked back to their car.

His response was perfect, and I was glad the kids heard it.  It reminded me of how discipline should be implemented: calmly, objectively, without the impassioned reaction of a personal affront.  I want to carry out my children's consequences with this same kind, calm, detached perspective.  I'm not taking this personally.  I hope you don't either.  Try not to let this ruin your day, Pumpkins.  

We drove away but continued discussing Mommy's grand mistake.

"Why do you have to go to a judge?" they asked.

"Well, if I felt the ticket they gave me was unfair or that I wasn't doing anything wrong, I could go talk to a judge and tell him my story, and the judge would decide who is right.  But since I know it was my fault, I'm just going to pay the ticket.  There's no need to go to court." We talked about how I'd write a check when I got home and put it in the mail.

"Wasn't the policeman nice?" I asked.  I saw the kids nod in my rearview mirror.  "They're just doing their job.  Even though it's frustrating to get a ticket and have to pay some allowance, it's my fault I got it, not theirs."

We finished our errands, the kids occasionally reminding me not to go too fast as we drove.  "Don't worry.  I'm being very careful about my speed now," I told them.

"I'm going to be a policeman when I grow up," Ben said.  "I'm going to keep people safe."

"And I bet you'll be a nice policeman like those guys," I said.

I learned something.  I hope the kids did, too.  And so, this is the only ticket I've ever been grateful for.

But I sure hope it's the last.

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