On Sunday, three of my four kids ran out the door, eager to play with some other neighborhood kids who were building a fort out of the snow. This feat was occurring in the front yard of a child who is just one year older than my eldest child, Faith. The front yard in question has been a common play area for the cul-de-sac kids for years with one of the parents once telling us what a joy it was to see all the kids playing there. Upon arriving at the icy white castle, though, my children were told by their four regular playmates that they weren't allowed to help them build it and had to wait until it was finished. My children – almost nine, six and four years old – naïve about what that really meant, started to fumble around in the snow and make snow angels. My little girl Hannah was giggling as she scooped up handfuls of the white stuff and studied it in her hands. Caleb sported a wide grin as he flapped his arms to make wings in it. Both were oblivious to the children who didn't want them around. As I watched that broader scene, though, I decided to throw a few snowballs at my children to make them feel included in some sort of action in which they were welcome. As I was doing so, the child who lives in the house called loudly out to another, "Why don't they just play at their own house?" One of the other children then responded in an equally-loud volume, "Don't they have their own yard to play in? Why do they have to come over here and bother us?" The other kids then all joined in concert with similar statements – statements that left my children crying and hurt, children who weren't "bothering" anybody.
It reminded me of a scene from Friends where Joey and Rachel were talking down about Chandler and he kept interrupting with "Uh…I'm right here!" and "Hello, I'm still right here!" In another episode Chandler ponders, "Should I use my invisibility to fight crime or for evil?"
Well, I felt like that to a degree, wondering if these kids thought I was invisible right in front of them, or whether they really didn't care. I was momentarily speechless, something that happens very rarely to me. At a loss for words, I grabbed the hands of six year-old Caleb and four year-old Hannah, crouched down, and said, "Hey, sweeties. It's cold out here. How about you come home with daddy and we'll get some hot chocolate?" I thought Faith was following me, but she ended up coming through the door a few minutes later in tears. "Daddy, they don't want to play with me anymore."
Lisa and I had actually witnessed similar events over the prior few months from these same kids, but had bit our lips for the most part, not wanting to be confrontational. I guess we wanted to keep peace in the cul-de-sac and, quite frankly, were partly in fear of a person we consider to be somewhat of a gossip who is a parent of one of these children. In the midst of three very hurt children, though, I decided that enough is enough and marched out to the fort to tell the children off. Admittedly, this is probably not the recommended approach most times, but we've always told the parents in our cul-de-sac that if they ever see any of our kids doing anything wrong, they should feel free to correct them. It's all part of that "It takes a village to raise a child" thing. I felt within my rights as a parent of hurt children to therefore rebuke those who had callously dealt out the hurt.
Two of these kids in question frequently show up on our doorstep asking if our kids can come out to play . . . but only if the other two aren't available. My children are basically the 'second choice' in those instances. Didn't seem to be an 'age barrier' in those instances, though. Odd.
So, I approached the fort and, pointing a finger at those who frequently knock on our door, said, "If you don't want to play with our kids now, and are going to treat them so meanly, don't bother coming over to our house to play with them when your other friends aren't available. I heard what you were saying. I was standing right here. That was a very ugly and disrespectful way of telling them you don't want them around. They're at home crying right now because of your meanness." Meanly and meanness aren't words normally in my vocabulary, but it sounded appropriate for ten and eleven year-olds. I was told later that I used the word friggin' in there somewhere. Yep, that's entirely possible, but I'm not even sure what friggin' means.
Granted, I got an apology out of the two primary offenders – an admission of guilt – but that was later retracted by one of the parents who said the kids were just scared of me and would have said anything. Wow, how's that for modeling? This, coming from a parent who didn't really seem to understand that anything wrong occurred. To the contrary, these kids weren't scared. Two of them were outright smirking while I was 'correcting' them.
So, I guess you can imagine what happened next. One neighbor ends up on my doorstep, wound up tightly and ready to unload, with hand extended in my face. I slowly (and I emphasize slowly) closed the door by saying I wasn't ready to talk with them while they were acting like that. Turns out, a lot of phone calls occurred before then and the parents of the kids were all worked up into a tizzy. Seems like my years of loving and helping children meant nothing at that moment. I might as well have been a child killer at that point.
After a couple of days, things certainly haven't settled down. Just today the child who lives in the house where the fort was being erected smugly told Caleb that he wasn't allowed to play with him anymore and that my kids were never allowed in his yard again. He said it matter-of-factly and with confidence as far as I can tell. So, I guess his parents told him that. When Faith asked one of the girls if she'd like to play, the girl just turned and walked away, not even giving her the courtesy of an answer. Faith came home in tears, once again. One of the parents, who does some substitute teaching, told me that "every day kids come up to me crying" because so-and-so wouldn't play with them, "this is just how kids are." It shouldn't be, I thought. I wasn't quick enough at the time, but I wish that I would have said, "So, you see it every day, huh? You've seen the hurt that it causes. Well, why do you let it perpetuate with your own children, then? Surely the tangible sight of crying children should motivate you to teach something different – a different way of acting – to your own children?" Oh well. Maybe I'll think of it next time.
So, are these the values that we teach our kids these days? Firstly, I take exception about the whole age segregation argument. There's enough division in our world already. Do we have to instill it in our children at such a young age? Growing up in England (yes many years ago, I concede) there was the sense of 'family' on a street where kids of all ages played together. Maybe that's a Pollyanna attitude that simply doesn't hold true today . . . but it should. I think we, as parents, should fight these tendencies to see kids segmented off by age, with each group looking down upon those in younger age categories. As I've traveled the developing world, I don't see as much of this. In the midst of want and hunger, devoid of materialism and unhealthy expectations, children are simply . . . children. In our culture, to excuse it as "Come on Paul, kids just want to play with kids their own age," helps to reinforce such divisions and discriminations. Why do we play into such a culture and think that it's acceptable?
The bigger issue in my specific case, though, isn't so much the age argument, although I feel strongly about that in its own respect. Rather, it's the very disrespectful and hurtful way these kids decided to enforce such a division and the rigor with which the parents of these kids defend it. My next-door neighbors' kids, six and four year-old cute-as-a-button girls, went out to play after school. One of the parents of the children that wronged my children went up to them and preemptively said, "You are too young to play with my children." My neighbors' kids weren't even involved in the previous incident on Sunday and the father was totally blindsided when his two girls came into the house bawling their eyes out. I guess that particular parent of one of the offending children decided that she didn't need to use her child as a proxy anymore. She was content to break little children's hearts directly.
To many of you this might seem petty. After all, in the midst of what I deal with daily (kids sold into slavery, children forced to serve in armies, young girls trafficked into prostitution), this may appear to be silly banter about common childhood issues that harm nobody and will "pass with time." But basic human respect (or lack of respect) starts at a young age. And we have to tackle it at a young age. Otherwise, what's next? The inevitable climb to be on top, while trampling on others. The insatiable appetite to serve our own needs and desires while turning a blind eye to how it negatively impacts others. The further divisions into various "us and them" categories that bring discord to society and humanity.
My call is to children. My passion is to see them helped and raised to be positive change agents for their communities and world. It has to start there.
My blogging has dropped off considerably while I've been working on my book. But if it does anything these days to help effect change, I hope this is an area where it indeed has impact. It's time to break down these barriers, folks. It's time to start treating one another with mutual respect, "seeking to understand" before jumping to conclusions, and smashing these cycles of hurt that are ingrained and reinforced at such early ages.
It's time to instill such values of acceptance, fair play and respect in our children! No excuses!
After my wife chatted with Faith tonight, Faith responded by saying, "Mommy, I never want to treat another child like I've been treated."
One child at a time, folks! One child at a time!