Thursday, November 10, 2022

The Essential Art Of "Short-Arming"

The boys were playing together as they often do, running, debating, forming and re-forming "teams," which was the trend of the moment. Being the day before a holiday, about half the kids were not at school, off on their travels or entertaining out of town guests. It was nearing the end of the day and the adults were mostly chatting among themselves, already shifting into long weekend mode, a great time to be a kid.

I watched one of the guys scoop up water in the blade of his shovel, then toss it toward a friend. I say toward rather than at because although it may have looked as if he was attempting to douse his buddy, I could tell that he "short-armed" the effort, causing the spray of water to land on the ground near the feet of his ostensible target, who replied with a good natured, "Hey!"

Periodically, what looked like sword fighting erupted, everyone swinging their shovels and stick ponies and broom handles at one another in ways that typically cause adults to step in with cautions, if not outright commands to "Stop!" Sure, it would have hurt had someone been hit, but the reality was that those sticks were rarely coming within a foot of making actual contact with a person. And if you really studied what the kids were doing, you would find that they were again short-arming their efforts, not swinging full force, targeting one another's sticks, rather than their bodies. Accidents could happen, of course, that's part of the thrill of the game, but they were all striving to make sure they didn't happen in what was a complex ballet of battle.

Occasionally, one of the girls would get involved with the game, seeming to enjoy themselves until someone took it one step too far and "captured" them, which meant wrapping them up in a bear hug. Then they would yell, "Stop!" and "I don't like that!" The boys rarely released them on the first voiced objection, usually not responding until the third "Stop!" or "I don't like that!" The rule of thumb for adults is that one needs to wait a minimum of 12 to 15 seconds for young children to respond to a question: I reckon the same goes for commands. And indeed, although it may have seemed at first glance that the boys were refusing to acknowledge the girls right away, as I counted I found they all released their hold in under 6 seconds. This tells me they were so finely tuned into their playmates' feelings that they were able to cut their typical response time in half. Again, a sort of short-arming.

That's what this kind of play is all about. It's why it's best when adults don't jump in so often and so promptly, at least when we're talking about four and five year olds. When children are younger, say two, they aren't ready yet, from a developmental and experiential perspective, to short-arm, which is why they sometimes wail on their classmates, physically and emotionally, often without any apparent provocation. They aren't trying to hurt their friends, but rather are experimenting with the limitations of friendship itself, figuring out how far one can go: only with this information can you begin to calculate how to short-arm for yourself. This is when adults most effectively intervene, protecting children, while offering informative statements like, "When you hit people it hurts them," and "When I knock over someone's building, I help them build it again." We say these things not because we necessarily expect these very young children to spontaneously apologize (although they often do, in their own way) or to drop to their knees and help re-create whatever tower has been demolished (although they often do, in their own way), but rather to plant seeds that will, if consistently and lovingly tended, result in the kind of self-control that leads to short-arming.

At one point, a boy with a smile on his face shoved his friend to the ground. It was a hard shove, too hard, not at all short-armed, and it happened right in front of a group of adults. Had this happened when I was the only adult present, I'd have likely stood back for a moment to see how things played out, but in this case I knew that if I didn't make an effort to respond, someone else would, so I stepped toward the boys. As I did, I could see a face of anguish, we all could. Before I could take two steps, however, the boy who had done the pushing, dropped to his knees beside his friend saying, "Are you okay?"

Through his tears, "No."

"I'm sorry." When he received no response other than more tears, he again said, "I'm sorry." When he still received no response he asked, "What can I do to make it better?" These were not my words coming out of him, but I've heard his mother suggest them many times.

This time he received a response, "I want you to apologize."

Without hesitation, he said, "I'm sorry . . . I've said it three times!"

The boys lay there together on the ground for a couple minutes, then the drive to play again took the upper hand. Learning to play with the other people is the work of a lifetime. Next time, or the time after that, or the time after that, he'll short-arm that shove and a good natured, "Hey!" will be all that remains of the tears.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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