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.
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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