Tuesday, July 16, 2019


It had started as a mutually agreeable wrestling match, the kind that often break out between five-year-old boys, but one of them, for whatever reason, changed his mind and called out, "Stop!"

This is something we work on at Woodland Park, the right to assert, "Stop!" And we've all agreed that if someone says, "Stop!" to you, you must stop and listen to what that kid has to say. It's safe to say that we are all much better at the former than the latter.

In this case the boy calling, "Stop!" which he did repeatedly, continued to "be wrestled" for several seconds before he was heeded. By then he was in tears. Through those tears he said, "I said 'Stop' and he didn't stop." This was said to me, not so much in the spirit of tattling, because I'd obviously been there all along, but more, I felt, the way one reports a crime to a cop.

I said something like, "I can tell that upset you. I would tell him what you told me." Of course, the child in question was only a few feet away and heard the whole thing, but my goal was to steer the conversation back where it belonged, between the children.

"I said 'Stop' and you didn't stop."

"I did too," a true statement, even if it had been delayed.

And here's the dilemma: it's quite well accepted that when an adult feels compelled to ask a question of a young child, one typically must wait 12-15 seconds, at minimum, for a response, something adults rarely do. It simply takes most preschoolers that long to process the information and formulate an appropriate response. In reality, I know that some children, especially when focused deeply on something, like the sort of joyful wrestling in which these two had been engaged, need quite a bit longer to pull themselves together enough to respond.

Our 4-5's class had, while engaged in formulating their rules, their agreements, came up with this particularly awesome one: "Don't do anything to anybody unless you ask them first." This is a step beyond the classic "Golden Rule" in my view, because it requires one to not just consider one's own perspective, but to actually inquire about the perspective of others, in order to receive, what we're calling in our contemporary parlance, "consent."

"No you didn't! I said 'Stop' and you kept wrestling and you didn't ask me to keep wrestling!"

I'm among those who don't understand why other adults are so confused about the idea of consent, especially when it comes to adult behaviors like sex. I have no questions about our cultural attempts to shift from "No means no," to "Yes means yes," but evidentially some people do, which has fueled a backlash against what some see as "political correctness" run amuck. But these are young children here, not adults. I think it's fair to expect adult people to stop more or less instantly when told "Stop!" by a fellow human, but we simply can't expect that from five-year-olds. Their brains and bodies simply will not allow them to do it, just as the brains and bodies of infants will not allow them to walk or talk.

As I watched the poor accused boy sit there at a loss for a response, I pitied him for this moment of what could only be a confused self-reflection. He had, from where I sat, done everything in his power to respond to his friend in a timely matter, and in fairness, it had not taken even close to 12 seconds to release his grip and roll off of his wrestling mate. He simply didn't know why he had continued beyond the hard line of "Stop!"

By this time the boy who had been in tears was wiping them away, while his friend's eyes were about to crest.

I was at a loss and probably should have left things as they were, but instead, I said, "You said 'Stop' and he did stop, but not right away." The emotional event had by now drawn a crowd of both children and adults. It didn't feel right to leave things like this in light of the fact that both boys, in my view, had behaved in an exemplary manner, one standing up for himself and the other, to the best of his developmental ability, had responded according to the children's self-imposed rules and, as evidenced by welling tears, with empathy. So I said, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Let me tell you something I know about five-year-olds: sometimes it takes 15 seconds before they can do what you want them to do." Then I counted out 15 seconds using my fingers.

No one said a word for a moment. I'd spoken, perhaps ill-advisedly, out of a place of not knowing what to say, and as we sat in silence, I figured I'd just blathered a few of those nonsense words that adults so often say to children. At least, I thought, the adults had heard me. We sat this way long enough that children began to return to their play, leaving the three of us alone.

I hadn't been counting on my fingers, but I reckon about 15 more seconds had passed. That was when the boy who had stopped, but not right away, said, "I'm sorry," then burst into tears.

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