I drive around town in a big black SUV that fits many children, car seats, groceries and gear. I am grateful for this car, large enough for my family, and I’m grateful for the lesson it has taught me . . .

My car has prominent scratches from being keyed across much of the right side passenger door. I get a lot of feedback on the competency of the so called “keyer,” someone who took the time to etch each detail exactly and neatly. People constantly ask me about what happened, and how I reacted when I saw it, expressing the anger they would feel if, G‑d forbid, My car has prominent scratchesthis vandalism happened to them. Sometimes I laugh; sometimes I tell them that it’s fine, it’s just a car; and sometimes, I tell them the rest of the story.

You probably want to know what it says on my car and who did it. Well, the etching on my car explicitly spells out my son’s name, which he so diligently carved into the paint on the car door as he was perfecting his name-writing skills—together with quite a few doodles. Was it etched with love? Or was it etched with a sense of creativity?

I am guessing more with abandon and otherworld dreaminess, the lackadaisical demeanor of many young boys drifting in and out of their own fantasy lands of imaginative play. My son was 6, the age when children are so excited to know the secret code of the alphabet, when they practice writing everywhere. The same age when a child cannot resist reading every written word placed before him—on billboards, cereal boxes and road signs—reading that takes effort because his list of sight words still fits on one column of a page. An age where a child is hopefully past coloring on walls, but on random papers like the mail, a book or magazine that is in front of him, not so much. Without intending to, and when he is zoning out of his immediate surroundings and into his play world, those papers might accidentally become illustrated with the story being played out in his mind. This is surely the mindset my 6-year-old possessed when he keyed my car.

In addition to being this “kind of kid,” he also was in possession of a really cool spear that his older brother received as a gift from Africa many years ago. It must have been in some closet, and he found it—and it was sharp. We were all outside on a beautiful spring day, deciding which kids were loading into which car on our way to a Passover family outing. While the adults were packing food and arranging things, my son was on the periphery decorating our car. My husband came outside and witnessed the final flourish of our “designer” car, and gasped. He might have also yelled, “What are you doing?!” but that is all. My son, realizing what he had done, ran into the house—fast. He curled himself into a ball next to me on the couch as I was tying someone’s shoe, and began to cry. I didn’t have long to wonder what had happened; three of my children made sure to tell me exactly what took place. I was left thinking about how to handle this.

Anything I wanted to say would not make sense to a 6-year-old. What does a 6-year-old know about the price of a paint job for a big SUV; what does he know about something that is really expensive; what does he know about permanence, about destruction and vandalism? I could tell it was nothing. My son got caught up in the etching and sketching without fully appreciating what he was doing, but as soon as my husband roused him from his daydream with “What are you doing?!” he knew exactly what he did wrong. I didn’t need to lecture him; he was already crying and ashamed of himself.

My son regretted his experiment with contemporary art and wished he could undo it, but it was too late. So I made the choice not to make him feel any worse (and my husband did the same, after the initial shock). We didn’t punish him or scold. I did take the time later to go over what kind of creativity is permissible and what is considered destructive. I am sure keying my car didn’t feel much different to him than using the sharp clay tools to draw his letters into the clay in preschool, or chalking the He knew exactly what he did wrongsidewalk on a warm summer day, or painting the windows of the old car in summer camp before the grand carwash. But once he learned that it was indeed different, his name was already there, and would be there for a very long time—punishment enough. A natural consequence, the type parents should try hard not to interfere with.

He is a year older now, and seeing his name does not bother him, or at least he has never asked me to get it painted over. But for me, his name etched in my car is the sign of a real defining moment in my parenting: the time I didn’t lose it. I let my son feel his own pain without taking away his dignity. I comforted him, and I praised him for realizing his mistake and being remorseful. Of course, I was supremely upset that he ruined my almost-new car, but that was beside the point. He made a mistake, he was sorry, and I didn’t mess this one up.

We have a keyed car, a story to tell, a proud mom, and a kid who is still working on his dreaminess and his writing skills—on paper, of course.