I raised the tiny teacup to admire the sunlight flowing through the translucent white china. Delicate blue flowers danced around the rim and down the s-curved handle. This cup was part of a set I had owned as a girl. Now it was my children’s turn to play.
My four-year-old fed her baby doll a sip of tea while her six-year-old sister poured air-filled cream and sugar into a cup. The scene was just as I had always dreamed it: perfect and calm and glowing around the edges.
The first time a teacup clattered into a saucer, I gently reminded the girls about being careful with these treasures. They nodded, eyes solemn and true; of course they would be careful.
My old tea set provided the opportunity I’d been waiting for to complete some chores, so I put the time to good use. I changed the baby’s diaper, switched a load of laundry, and made the bed. In short, I made myself scarce.
The girls chattered in the kitchen, happy with their successful tea party right up until there was a crash and a shatter. You knew there would be a crash and a shatter, right? Isn’t there always a crash and a shatter where handed-down tea sets are concerned?
From the back of the house, I closed my eyes and willed it untrue, but my four-year-old broke the spell before it could take hold, racing down the hallway to speak her mind.
“Mama, I wasn’t the one who did that. I was just watching and she dropped it and it broke ALL OVER THE FLOOR.” Her hands were on her hips, daring me to oppose her innocence. I shook my head, feeling frustration bubble up from my chest to choke at my throat.
I was immediately angry. My six-year-old must have been excessively careless and wild for such a thing to have happened, I was sure. And though I hadn’t decided on a disciplinary strategy yet, she would certainly have consequences for her carelessness.
In the kitchen, my oldest daughter looked up at me with tears trembling on her lower eyelids as she tried to gather tiny, porcelain pieces. “It just slipped, mom. I was being careful and I wanted to bring you a cup of tea and it slipped but I’ll try to fix it and I’m sorry!” As her testament grew so did her emotion. By the end of the speech she was crying outright.
I surveyed the damage. One shattered, irreparable tea cup; one messy, shard-covered floor; one broken-hearted, distraught little girl.
On the tip of my tongue were the admonitions I’d carried with me into the kitchen. Statements about her being old enough to know better, smart enough to think better, and careful enough to do better. They died on my lips.
In that moment, I knew that she was already suffering the consequences of carelessness. She was already sad about the broken cup, worried about my feelings, and probably angry at herself for dropping the cup. The last thing she needed was for fear of punishment to be added to the list.
I stooped down and began sweeping the broken glass into a pile. She helped me throw away the pieces. It was apparent that the natural consequences were enough and that she would never forget mom’s broken teacup.
All that was left was for me to swallow my frustration and learn a lesson of my own: never turn your back on a tea party.