If You Give a Kid a Jellybean...
Updated: Mar 28
From an early age, I understood that life is easier when you follow rules. Follow the rules and you make people happy, then they do things like give you candy and stickers. In school, following rules leads to good grades and awards. I became very good at identifying the rules, encoding them and following them to a “T”, and I knew it. I owned it. The problem is, there is a shadow that accompanies the assumed power of following rules, or following rules with the assumption that you’ve identified them correctly. Somewhere along the line I crossed over to that dark side, becoming reliant on and addicted to the rules as I interpreted them, so much so that I began to fear what would happen if I didn’t follow them, yet alone question their validity. I couldn’t much care if other people did or didn’t follow rules, but I had to.
As a mother, my cultish need to engender rules remained my greatest vice. So, it was no surprise that a long-standing addiction to “Rule Kool-Aid” might spill over to my son, or that he would appoint himself the captain of the rule police, although he also found himself “trouble-adjacent” from time to time. This was new territory for me. Not knowing how to relate, I spiraled down a path of self-generated imaginative drama as a coping mechanism with the same brand of enthusiasm I had previously (and somewhat obsessively) worshipped rules.
One such event occurred in second grade when my son was sent home with a note from the principal that required signatures from both his parents as well as himself because of the “severity” of this incident. My assumption: guilty by association via stationary; my response: a tachycardic rhythm echoing in my cardiac chambers and disruptive peristalsis throbbing throughout my intestines. I could only imagine what could have transpired to cause the need for a SIGNED letter, from the principal no less. Regardless of what that event might be, I was primed for over-reaction. But in this case, let me warn you, it was shocking- Brace yourself: HE GAVE A KID A JELLYBEAN. You heard that right - a jellybean. Clearly I assumed I had read it incorrectly. Obviously this story proves otherwise.
What happened was that another second-grader brought in some Bertie Bots jellybeans - you know, the ones from the Harry Potter series that have flavors like "boogers" and "earwax" and "vomit". Anyway, this kid handed out jellybeans to his classmates during lunch. Apparently, my son thought, “Why not? I'll take a jellybean!” and was subsequently handed a brown "dirt" flavored confection. (Full disclosure: a few months before this I had bought a box of these weird treats for my son and I to try. I actually picked the dirt jellybean, thinking there’s NO way it could actually taste like dirt. I don’t know how they know what soil tastes like or why they’d even care, but by golly that thing was a sticky, gooey slab of mud surrounded by what could only be described as a clay-encrusted shell.) Per my offspring’s report, he decided he didn’t want a dirt flavored jelly bean after all. So, the little hooligan decided to offer it to a lunch aid because, well, nobody ever offered the lunch aid anything and that might make her sad. She declined, unaware that it would have been a dirt-flavored assault on her taste buds. Then my son offered it to one of the other kids at the table, also without flavor disclosure. This kid took a nibble, spit it out, and carried on like he had ingested a tabasco-covered scorpion on a stick. So, when the aid came running over to address the fuss, she learned that this concoction could have been hers to chew, and she sent our little criminal straight to the principal, a woman whom we had come to know quite well over the first few years in elementary school.
Per the Principal’s report, and corroborated by our sadistic imp, she asked him why he gave the gustatorily-assaulted student a dirt-flavored jellybean. He simply said, “I don’t know.” She interrogated further, sure she could get a full confession regarding the motive behind this high crime. “Was it a joke?” she asked. “Were you curious what would happen?” “Did you want to play a trick on him?” "Did you think it'd be 'cool'?" He stuck to his story: “I don’t know.” He really didn’t know why he did it, and whereas dirt wasn’t his cup of tea, he thought maybe somebody else might like it. She’d never encountered such a tough nut to crack, so she did what she had to do: punished the offender with detention during recess the next day.
When our con artist came home and shared this information, we had a long discussion regarding the potential danger of sharing food with people who might get sick from the ingredients, kind of like how I’m careful about my own food allergies. Naturally he asked, “Isn’t it the eater’s job to not eat food he’s allergic to? Like when you ask the waiter if there are pistachios in your food?” Rather than open the door to that anaphylactic debate, we continued covering the topic in great detail, with as much support for his logic, appreciation for his thoughtfulness to share “the evidence”, as well as establishing a new rule of asking potential recipients if they would like EXACTLY what he was sharing before passing it along. At that point we feigned a hint of academic neutrality (given that he had 2 more years left at this school), signed the darn sheet and hoped to end the matter on a positive note.
The problem was that the next day was Wednesday, and knitting club met during recess on Wednesday afternoons. Knitting club was the highlight of this child’s week: it allowed him to proudly display his bright fuzzy yellow yarn lump of abstract shapeness and receive help undoing and re-doing the loosely disorganized stitches to his heart’s content. And that’s when the crying started. At that point I realized that no, it wasn’t fair that he got a detention when he didn’t actually “do” anything wrong, or that he didn’t intend to be hurtful, and, on second thought, the punishment by no means fit the crime. Well, with my new found revelation of mind-blowing proportion, I called that principal and succinctly (and uncharacteristically) opposed the sentence, stating the case of my client’s innocence…a professional opinion to which she was completely disinterested. She then asked me the guilt-inducing question so often posed to parents of young children: “What if it was your child who had the allergy?” And for the first time that I can recall, my default had been rewired from apologetic to questioning the status quo: “An allergy? To dirt? He’s allergic to dirt? I mean, dirt is everywhere…do you not let him go on the playground with the dirt?” and she immediately replied, “now I understand where he gets it from, Mrs. Kamis. Goodnight.” and slammed down the phone. (Back when we had slammable phones.)
It was a sad Wednesday recess for my boy sitting in the principal’s office – which isn’t really sitting with the principal as much as sitting in the outer office trying to do absolutely nothing for twenty minutes while probably annoying the administrative staff, which makes one question who is actually being punished in this scenario. Because I tell you, not even one month later my child received a full week of morning detention in which he had to go directly to the principal’s office (misleading location already addressed) until the school bell rang, because he had a habit of running to the front of the line so as to be noticeably punctual. When I dropped him off at the beginning of that dreaded week, this little angel asked me with pure sincerity, “Mommy, how am I supposed to learn how to line up correctly if I’m not allowed to line up at all?” His was a very valid and profound point. So, I smiled, cupped his cute little chin in my hand, and answered him the only way I knew how, using the childlike wisdom he had recently imparted on my parentally regressed brain: “Honey, I don’t know.” I kissed him goodbye, he gently closed the car door, and then I drove to my first psychotherapy appointment.
What we both learned is that rules aren't always helpful for navigating the do’s and don’ts or the rights and wrongs in life, especially when that information is a little murky or open to interpretation. It’s okay to question, and it’s normal to assume, that our good intentions will be understood even when they violate an unwritten and misguided code of conduct. Sometimes we just have to be ourselves, speak out and stand in our truth, accept the lecture and take one for the team. Because rules don’t always make sense, and neither do the adults making them. Especially when it boils down to missing knitting club, during recess, because you gave a kid a jellybean.