Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I See Heartbreak In Their Future

Your own happiness doesn't necessarily teach you what you want to know.  ~The Who

Awhile back, I pissed off one of our parents at the school when I wasn't particularly fast in responding to some unsavory behavior by a group of kids. They weren't actually hurting anyone, but the optics, and the fact that the behavior is certain to emotionally hurt someone in the future if allowed to continue, made it troublesome. Her own child, although currently unaware of it, was the "victim" in this game and I wasn't immediately acting to stop it, which, understandably, made her mad. 

This is a hard part about being a cooperative preschool. I wasn't thinking about the fact that this was her child, but rather standing back until I was sure I understood what was going on. I would have been mad at me too, I reckon, but I needed a few minutes to process what I was observing, to make sure my response was appropriate. I do it wrong more often when I don't take a moment to think.

She asked me, urgently, "Why don't you teach them how to act?" by which I think she meant for me to step in and make it stop, then to, perhaps find a way to explain to the kids what was so wrong about what they were doing. The problem is that none of the kids thought anything was wrong -- they were all just having fun, including her child. I know what to do when someone is upset, when someone wants the game to stop, but this . . .

It reminded me of a time when I was a cooperative parent. Another father and I were watching some kids play when one of our fellow parent-teachers stepped in and "fixed" the problem. It was like a sitcom moment when she then left the scene, leaving us momentarily speechless as we looked from the kids to one another, before bursting out in laughter.

He asked, "What just happened?"

I now understand that this other parent saw, or thought she saw, something coming; a conflict or rudeness or whatever that would, if allowed to continue, have emotionally hurt someone, and stepped in to prevent it.

If a child is about to run into traffic, we step in to prevent it. If a child is going to jump off the roof of the garage, we step in to prevent it. If a child raises a long stick with the apparent intention of bringing it down on someone else's head, we step in to prevent it. But what about when we believe we see hurt feelings in the future, do we automatically step in to prevent it? Or do we let the feelings get hurt before stepping in, the way we might with a minor physical injuries, as a way for children to learn through natural consequences?

I know how the pissed off mother felt about it: this was her child, currently distracted by other things, and totally unaware of the potential heartbreak in his future. Of course she wanted me to help her protect him. I get that. At the same time, there were all these other kids, who were completely unaware that they were on verge of breaking someone's heart. Indeed, they thought they were having a ton of fun pretending to menace a "victim" who did not know he was a victim. If I stepped in to "fix" the problem, wouldn't they be left like the two of us cooperative fathers: "What just happened?"

This was an outdoor "game" that involved lots of running. I wanted to be physically close so that I was in position to act the moment someone showed any sign of being upset. Then I would know what to do: interrupt them by saying, "You look scared," or "He said 'stop'," or "He's crying" or whatever informative statement I could make that would cause all the children to pause and think. I tracked the game like this for several minutes, waiting for my opening, my heart sick from seeing a "victim" who did not know he was a victim, his mother, justifiably worried, following me. This was hard for me and harder for her.

Finally, I broke, and asked her son a question, "Are you having fun playing this game?"

Everyone stopped for a moment. He answered, "Yes, I'm hunting for diamonds," a response that let me know for sure that he had no idea what the other kids were doing. He thought they were all running with him, following him, when in fact they were chasing him.

I turned to the other children and said, "Is that the game you're playing?"

"Oh, he's not on any team. He's playing the diamond hunting game. You could play diamond hunting with him."

One child stayed to hunt for diamonds while the rest ran off and it was over, at least for that day, no one really having learned anything, probably asking themselves, "What just happened?" Still, I think I did the right thing, asking questions that provided everyone involved with more complete information. But still, I see heartbreak for all of those kids in the future and I'm helpless to prevent it. Please don't be mad at me.

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jenrhogan said...

I love this post. What you did was exactly the right thing, but so hard as a parent who wants to prevent her child from being hurt!

Anonymous said...

I am never that afraid of the physical pain - bumps and bruises - that my son, aged 3.10 - will experience. But that ache when I consider the heartache that he will experience from bullies and rejection by girls and not getting picked for a team makes me so sad that I almost wish I hadn't had him - to save him from that pain.

KBeck said...

I think most adults are all too willing to 'fix' the situation, before they have an understanding of said situation. I agree with your mode of operation--standing back in observer mode until you have a deeper, more thorough understanding of whatever situation the children are involved in. And, again, you didn't 'fix' the situation as you saw it, you helped the children see the situation for what it was--to all those involved.

Anonymous said...

I had a similar situation happen with own precious two-year old daughter at the neighborhood park. She was curiously watching a group of 2-3 older girls play. They were running around and she started running with them. Then they started running away from her as if they didn't want her to join in. She was having fun and was ignorant to the fact that they weren't running with her. Then they were playing in sand. She wanted to join them to either just watch or play (she said she wanted to go over near them). One girl kept repeating, "What?!" rudely. Then they were telling eachother, "She's staring at me", "She's staring at me, too." and then proceded to scream loudly and my daughter would back away then curiously approach again, and they screamed again and then said, "she's scaring me". It was sooo difficult for me to watch this and to keep my mouth shut! I finally couldn't take it anymore and told them that she was watching them because she wants to see how they play because she doesn't have any brothers or sisters. They were stunned that she was an only child and started to allow her to play. One girl said that my daughter was scaring her because she was staring and I said, "she's two. your scared of someone who's two?" In hindsight, saying that was rude. It was like they were "mean girls" because they didn't know her but then they let her join in. Of course my heart was breaking.

Edward M. Baldwin said...

I enjoyed this. I'm thinking that we should always "jump in" to prevent permanent scarring, serious physical injuries, etc. However, every parent has a different idea of what his or her child should/can handle. Also, I believe that sometimes the learning process needs to play itself out naturally, and I believe that this was one of those times.

Sadie said...

I wish more teachers took your approach. You clarified the situation, gave them some options, and gave the kids something to think about without setting them up as "aggressors" and the other child as a "victim." Sportscasting win! I think it's really, really important to establish with children that everyone can be thoughtless sometimes, that you can simply amend your behavior and everyone moves on. And it's equally important that children realize they can speak up for themselves and their own interests, without having to defer to an adult to arbitrate all disputes.

Anonymous said...

These are the things that no one discusses with you when you are thinking of having children. The fact that you are only as happy as your saddest child... or your "potentially" saddest child. My son is developmentally out of touch with the social norms of his peers. He's just turned 5, but recently at a local play area he approached a group of 4 other children with a huge smile and asked them what they were laughing at. They didn't respond. I knew it was at him, but he didn't know that.

I cry as I write this because I know that eventually he will figure it out and he won't have that huge smile on his face. At least for now, it's only me that's feeling sad.

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