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Beaten and Misunderstood

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Do your child's self-inflicted injuries make you look like Mrs. Bad Mommy?

girl with black eye

Brett Berk: I was talking to a mom friend the other day, and (like I do) I asked after her daughters Erica, 10, and Anna, 6. "They're great," she told me. "Enjoying the winter. Though Erica is walking around with a huge black eye right now." Making light of childhood physical abuse, like I do, I asked what the girl had done to merit such a beating, and what kinds of excuses my friend had invented to cover for this. "You tell people she walked into a doorknob? Or fell off her bed?"

As it turned out, the girl had sustained her injuries at her own hand. Or rather, at her own knee. Never known for her grace or coordination (but always known for her resolute effort and dedication to her craft), when Erica was practicing a complicated flip move in a recent gymnastics class, she'd "forgotten" to extend her legs on landing, and so instead of ending the tumble upright and on her feet, she'd finished it seated on the small of her back. And the force of her impact had pushed her knee into her eye socket.

Also known for the sensitive skin that lines her orbital bones, the girl was prone to what I tenderly call "pink raccoon face" whenever she got upset -- big, puffy, rosy circles that ringed her eyes after a cry -- so my friend simply figured that her daughters had been arguing in the car when her husband brought them home that afternoon. It wasn't until later that the swelling started.

"Poor kid," I said. "Did you at least get to put some raw steak on her face? That always works so well in the cartoons."

"Poor kid?" my friend said. "Poor me! I can't even LOOK at her angrily in public without people staring me down. I told her sternly that she couldn't get some candy at the supermarket yesterday, and I swear, three people grabbed their phones to call Bureau of Child Welfare!"

My friend is as prone to anecdotal enhancement as I am, so I knew she was slightly exaggerating. But it got me thinking about being misinterpreted as parents. Of course, there are some cases -- like that of the lady who dragged her kid around the cell phone store by a leash -- where no excuse will cover your obvious fail. But my guess is that most of you have experienced at least one incident wherein something your child got into or up to reflected back on you as a parent in a negative and unintentional way.

My prurient interest in conflict, miscommunication, and disaster makes me want to hear them. So, tell away!

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