Thursday, February 23, 2012

Driveways, Gum, and the Great Abyss

February is perhaps the month of the great abyss.  It is dismal.  Despite being clipped of a couple of days, February is never ending. 

I see my life in similar terms lately.  The days seem to fall into a great abyss.  I am doing what ought to bring about something--exercising, eating less, writing, mailing out manuscripts, searching for jobs, sending applications.  But it feels like I hear and see nothing.

The faith end is similar, and it is perhaps here that I put more trust and hope.  I believe in Divine Intervention.  I have witnessed it.  I know that I know that I know that I know it happens.  But it seems to fall short lately.

Or so I thought when I was shoveling the driveway a couple of weeks ago, much to my elder son's delight and my younger son's disdain.

"Come on, Little Brother!" yelled the big one.  "Let's make a fort!"

The little one snorted.  "Mom, when can we go to the pool already?"

My husband says I do things like shovel the parking spaces for myself.  This is partly true.  When I can't go on my local walk for fear of being taken out by a speeding vehicle careening down a hill, then tossing tens of pounds of snow onto the bushes relieves a little of that frustration.  It also shortens my time in the house with two boys playing "Spin and Die" on the desk chair.  The object of the game is to knock one's brother out of the rotating chair and climb into it one's self without damaging the TV or computer or being loud enough to summon a screaming parent.

Still, after clearing five or so parking spaces for the second time in a week, a thank you would have been really appreciated.  Not that I expected anyone to go out of their way to say thank you, but when one neighbor passed by without even eye contact, I was a little disappointed.  I consoled myself by thinking that she probably thought I was blaming her for not doing it herself (Please.  As if I couldn't see how impossible that was for her with her own two boys)!  But we tend to overlook the fact that others are sometimes not blaming us when we are busy blaming ourselves.

But then, a new girl who had moved in just recently caught me a couple of days later.

"Do your boys like gum?" she asked.  I nodded, strangely impressed because I hadn't realized that she even knew I had boys (Please. As if she could miss the cacophonous creatures who routinely issue forth from my front door).

"I really appreciated your shoveling my car out," she said as I brightened inwardly.  "I moved from LA, and I had no idea what to do for the snow."  She popped into her apartment and re-emerged not with one pack but with EIGHT packs of wintergreen gum.

"Wow," I said.

"I have chocolate, too," she offered.  "Do your boys like chocolate?"

Remembering how eating less and exercising more was already not working so well, I muttered, "Uh, yes, but no thanks."

"Well, thanks again," she said.

I stared at the mound of gum.  There was no way my kids could eat this much.

But life is not really a great abyss, as I was seeing once again.  I had recently written a piece on gumballs, which I had shared with a friend (and which I am trying to sell.  You don't happen to know anyone who wants to PAY to publish 800 rollicking words on childhood escapades involving gum, do you?).  She wrote back with a story of her daughter who still loves gum.

A few days after the gift, the same friend wrote that this same daughter has had further issues with her inoperable brain tumor and will require more chemo and radiation.  I knew at that moment that the gum wasn't just for us and, more importantly, I knew just who it was for.  I slipped out one pack for each of the boys and slid the remaining six into my friend's front door.

I wrote, "After your email about your daughter and your earlier note about how she also loves gum, I stuck some gum for her behind your door.  I've heard that chemo sometimes makes your mouth taste bad or makes you feel slightly nauseous, and someone told me that mint helps.  I hope she enjoys it!"

She wrote back, "It's incredible that you did leave gum.   She does need and use it.  In fact, when we were seeing the MD fo[r] her consult yesterday, she asked me if I had any.  ...A GREAT BIG THANKS FOR THE GUM."

And I knew that even though it's still February, it's not really the edge of the great abyss.  I might rather see some bigger answers to my prayers (a writing contract perhaps) just as I'm sure my friend would rather have her daughter's tumor completely healed than mint gum to help assuage her nausea.

But God says His grace is sufficient, and sometimes He reminds us that He's here.  So as I walk beside the pit, I have to remember that, no, it's not really the great abyss and that I'm holding the hand of One who is more than capable of fishing me out of it.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Good Night's Sleep, Part 2

WARNING:  Strong language in the video

My oldest son has never been a good sleeper.  Sure, I knew that he was active in utero, but that was nothing compared with what he was after his "escape" because you can only imagine what a prison the uterus was after you saw him on the outside.  In fact, the doctor had told me to wait to push during delivery and then changed his mind, saying, "You might as well push 'cause he's crawlin' out anyhow."  The big one (then the little and ONLY one) was constantly moving, always looking for something new.  He never liked to sleep.

Like most new parents, we tried random things.  We held him.  We bounced him.  We tried to let him cry it out (FAIL!  FAIL!  FAIL!  FAIL!).  We tried inducing sleepiness through changes in body temperature--a hot bath and then slow cooling off period.  We tried swaddling.  We tried freedom.  We tried the car for miles and miles and miles and miles.

As he got older, it didn't get any easier.  As he settled on a bedtime around 2:00 AM, his brother decided to get up at 5:00.  AM.  This was when we were living in Korea and all sleeping in the same room.  We were not happy.

When a friend of mine linked to this bedtime story, I could relate.  But part of me wanted to laugh while the other wanted to cry.

You see, while I feel Adam Mansbach's pain, while I have been that parent, while probably EVERY parent has been that parent, there comes a time when sleep issues are more than just willfulness on the part of the child, and the blame of the child by the exasperated parent does very little good in fixing the problem.

Like most aspects of parenting, the topic of getting your child to sleep is well covered in the literature.  Baby Sleep Advice lists 10 separate methods, not steps, mind you, full-blown methods.   And we have tried them.

In the beginning of his book Lost at School (excerpt available online), Ross Greene writes, "Many adults have never given much thought to their philosophy of kids.  But if you're trying to help kids with behavioral changes, you're going to need one, because it's your philosophy of kids that's going to guide your beliefs and your actions in your interactions with them, especially when the going gets tough.  The philosophy that serves as the foundation of what you're about to read is 'kids do well if they can.'  This may not sound earth-shattering, but when we consider the very popular alternative philosophy--"kids do well if they want to"--the significance becomes clear."

And it IS the second philosophy that motivates the parents in Mansbach's book, many of the sleep theories, and, to be honest, a lot of my less-than-open-minded attempts at parenting.

And it is so hurtful to everyone involved that it might be time to ponder, just ponder, whether motivation really is the issue.

It was the third week in April 2011 when I finally caved to various pressures and gave the kids melatonin.  I had already talked to countless parents, the psychologists, and three pediatricians.  I hated the idea of medicating our kids--so much so that I only gave the big one half a dose (of the children's dosage) and the little one one-quarter.  But at some point, we all NEEDED SLEEP.  I think I waited an appropriate time period.  The oldest was, after all, six and three-quarters and had never slept well.

Both children were fast asleep at 8:40.  PM, not the morning after, mind you.  It was the first time.  Ever.  Since birth.

But the real kicker is that they could tell the difference.  When nighttime comes, the oldest one often begs for melatonin, saying, "I am really sleepy, Mommy, but I just can't hold still and sleep," or, when I have decreased his dosage too much or tried a placebo to see if it's not a psychological effect, "Why can't you just give me the medicine?!  You know I'm just going to lay and lay and lay here!"

It is definitely the medicine, and it definitely works.

And all of those years of screaming and blaming and crying and exhaustion could have been severely shortened if I had just changed my own attitude, listened a little more.

So while Mansbach's book is funny, and we've all been there, the question is, Do we need to be there? What might the future hold if we looked at the problem from another perspective?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

How to Talk to Little Boys

Recently, I've heard a lot about how to talk to little girls, how to build their self-esteem 1 2 3.


I don't mean, "Stop talking about the problems of little girls and how to solve them." No.  I mean "Stop," is what I usually hear said to little boys, followed by "No," "Sit down," and, "Be quiet."

Now trust me. I am not innocent.  My five-year-old son currently has only two volumes: loud and very loud. And I say, "Shut up," a lot, like every other breath.

But it's something I frequently feel convicted about.  I am tired of telling them bad things about themselves.  And, to be honest, even though I feel like I am full of negativity, I am frequently reprimanded by others that I don't reprimand them enough.

You see, I want my boys to be safe and functional, but I'm not sure that making them more like girls (or worse, blaming them for the disparities that we see in girls) will solve the problem.  I love that they are sensitive, but that they are sensitive differently than I am.  I love that they are doers and that they hardly ever do the same thing twice.  I love that they move first, talk later.

But there's all kinds of things that bother me about how boys are seen.  When is the last time you saw a hero--outside of sports--with a beard?  I don't think Dumbledore and Jack Sparrow count. 

My oldest son recently told me, "When I grow up, I'm going to be a good guy.  You know, one who's got no beard or stickers on his face."

 Since when did beards and whiskers translate into "bad"?

When is the last time that a hairy chest (or hairy anything) was okay?  It's not that I think that all men should be hairy, but hairy should be okay. 

Also, when was the last time you saw a guy where it was okay not to be buff or a buff guy who was smart?  I can only think of shows for adults.  When was the last time a hero was a baritone and not a tenor?  "South Pacific" comes to mind.  "Camelot."  But anything this half century?  Sure, it's fine for a guy to be smooth-faced and high voiced.  But excuse me if I wonder if we aren't saying that the further away from a woman you become, the more animal-like you are.

It makes me nauseous.

My biggest qualm about leaving Korea was how bad it is for boys here in America.  They can't have close friends.  They shouldn't touch.  They should be ashamed of their dirty, hairy, smelly bodies.  They should never gain weight, but they shouldn't move around.  They need to be fierce at sports, but gentle at everything else.  They should never make fun of women but should laugh appreciatively when their female classmates demean them and their female teachers crack jokes about boys and men.

Is that healthy?  Is it even possible?

Blasting men over "stupid" things has become so commonplace that I never even thought about it until I went to a movie with a friend and a bunch of her friends.  As a whole, we were lamenting the things we didn't like about our husbands or boyfriends when I asked one of the girls, who had been quiet to this point, what annoyed her.

"Oh," she answered quickly.  "I try not to make generally disparaging comments about my significant other."

While I was a little stung by the way she made the comment, I changed the way I spoke about my husband from that point on and paid a lot more attention to how men were treated in the stories we read.

I don't mean in any way to suggest that there aren't problems out there for girls or for the different races, those with physical or mental disabilities, or anything else.  What I mean to suggest is that a good number of us who are raising boys right now, and we are doing it at a disadvantage in a society which is skewing masculinity to be a more and more unachievable goal.

So how do I talk to little boys?  Or maybe the question is how do I talk about them?  Or what do I do with them?  Or how do I listen to them?

And I've got to tell you that I just don't know the answer, but I think it's time to really get looking.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Good Night's Sleep, Part 1

No one warned me that sleepless nights extend far beyond one's children's days of infancy.  I don't think I have slept the night in nearly eight years.  First there were feedings, then nightmares, then fevers and coughs, then potty breaks.  There's nothing quite as frustrating as getting up to perch the little one over the potty only to find a puddle of warm pee on the bed.  *Sigh* And occasionally, there are just the nights when it's not in the cards to sleep.

I don't know if it was the rotten day that came before bed, the pounding headache as I lay there on the pillow, the multiple bathroom runs with the little one, my husband's certainty that the boys' bed was soaked, or the little one's insane coughing which (after a drink, Vick's Vapo Rub, and cough syrup) prompted me to bring him downstairs so he could sleep upright.  But come 2:17, I suddenly was no longer tired.

At these moments, in the silent stillness of the house--well, not quite silent.  The little one is snoring on the couch.  Daddy is turning over occasionally upstairs, the big one is muttering in his sleep, and I can hear the ladies next door softly banging home from their late shift.  But in the relative quiet, I wonder what to do.  Hang out in the kitchen where the light won't wake the little one and read?  Watch ancient shows on mute TV?

Life seems suspended.  I have been granted a reprieve, which is a very good thing because I need one after today, and for a few moments or hours or however long I'm up, I can shelve whatever hard feelings, sadness, and frustrations the day brought and revel in how very blessed I am at this moment.

I'm not guaranteed anything more than this moment, and I don't have control over anything that happens next.  But for this moment, I am grateful for my trying-to-be-quiet-but-not-quite-succeeding neighbors, thankful for the tossing husband, appreciative of the snoring little one, and amused by the muttering big one ("Dragons!" and "I told you not to" were the last things I heard.  I hope he remembers the dream tomorrow because it sounds awesome).

And sleep or no sleep, I think this has the makings of being a very good night.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


I had a gorgeous cat.  She was the bane of all mice, spiders, and flies.  She was brutal and merciless.  But she was also beguiling and beautiful.

It has been very difficult to write this post.  This portion of my life was one I thought I had put behind me and no longer needed to relive.  I had warned those I thought it pertinent to warn.

Recent conversations about who's to blame when a predator continues preying on a community have compelled me to retell my messy story. 

And the long and the short of it is this:  If you wait for the one in power to do something, you have waited too long.  Scapegoating does nothing more than relieve others of their shared guilt and teach those who are watching that they have no share in the responsibility. 

In the end, it was my community that saved me--ten to twelve tenacious peons who wouldn't take no for an answer, who didn't know it wasn't their business, and who didn't wait for the authorities to do something when there was something they could do themselves.  They were students, mainly freshman and sophomores, who just didn't give up.  If they had believed the kinds of theories of responsibility swirling around today, my story would have had a very different ending.

* * *

By all my recollections, he was charming—a little socially backward, perhaps, but charming nonetheless.  He seemed harmless, so very sweet and harmless.
I should have known better.  As one of my very best friends once told me, “Beware, Beth.  No guy is sweet and harmless, and if he makes himself look that way, he has an agenda.”

And he did have an agenda.

He stalked me.  Like my cat, he was a good predator, and he relied on my weaknesses.  He knew I had short-term amnesia as the result of a concussion sustained in a recent car accident.  I forgot things a few hours after they happened without reminders to help me eventually encode them.  He knew that I was a freshman who had only been on campus a couple of weeks so that I had no firm support system or good friends.  He used these to his advantage.

Wherever I went, he would appear.  He was everywhere.  He used his access as a lab assistant to see when I logged into the local computer lab, and he would materialize there moments later.  He would tell me I told him we would do something together, and I would believe him even though I didn’t remember. So we would do it. 

Later my friends would ask, “Why did you go out with him?” 

I would answer, “He told me I promised to.”

“The h*** you did!”

He would do something scary—hurl things at me which missed narrowly and shattered against the wall.  Then he would apologize profusely, make it up, say it wouldn’t happen again.  Perhaps he thought I would forget.  Perhaps he didn’t know that I was writing things down or that I was relying on the collective memory of the hall residents to keep me in check.

I was aware that there had been a girl before me, that she had not had a good time with him either.  But they said it was her fault.  They said that you couldn’t trust her.  They said, “Judge for yourself.”

I went to my University Scholars Assistant and Resident Assistant.  They were unsure of the right course of action and sent me to someone with real authority in Student Housing.  After I told my story, they told me I had no proof.  If we took action against him, we would be infringing on his rights.

My friends didn’t wait though.  They took action.  One friend would wait while I took my medicine for the concussion—meds which made me confused and sleepy—watched out for me as I prepared for bed, then lock me into my room, and slip the key under the door.  When I needed computer access, other friends let me use their computers in their rooms to complete my assignments so I never needed to log into a lab.  Another acquaintance used his authority as a lab assistant to try to block the stalker’s ability to find me (not sure how he did that).  Other girls on the hall would magically show up when the stalker did—witnesses so he couldn’t make up things that I had said and protectresses who escorted him back down to his room.

He claimed he was my boyfriend.  But I had another boyfriend. 

Eventually, he gave up.  My memory was coming back.  My friends were like armor which had no chinks.  And my boyfriend, from whom I kept all of this madness, was an island of sanity.  Okay, well, he has his own issues and so do I, but it was certainly an island of more sanity.

Aside from that, the predator thrived on looking good, looking like the one wronged, looking smooth.  I was ruining that for him.  I was no longer good prey, and he moved on.

A year later, on move-in day, I met his new girlfriend.

I am not sure what I said to her.  I remember trying to word my comments very carefully, to warn her but also to recall that I had not really been totally in my right mind.  I tried to give her the facts but not slander.

It still haunts me.  I met his girlfriend, but I doubted myself.  I didn’t take much action.  I didn’t grab her by the shoulders, shake her, and scream, “Run!”

I think I was giving him room to change, an opportunity for a second chance.  He had said he was sorry.  He had claimed to want a new start, another try.  Maybe he was different now. 

But then again, maybe second chances should come with caveats.  There was no reason that I shouldn’t have told his girlfriend what had happened to me, no reason that knowing would have hurt her.  In fact, there had been all the reason in the world to prepare her, but I wasn’t confident enough to take that step.  And that’s what he was counting on.

She later came to me with specific questions.  Yes, he had done the same things to her but worse, so much worse.

How did it happen? 

He was a predator.  I want to be clear.  Predators are beautiful, and they pick prey well.

His first girlfriend had a reputation, and it wasn’t a good one.  To the best of our knowledge, she did two things only: exercise and have sex.  You could hear it, at all hours, in the adjacent girls’ room (they were my friends) and the study hall.  I am told you could hear it downstairs as well, but I never tested that report.

She was also largely asocial, rarely talking to anyone but her sex partners in a social setting, and I’m not sure that you could call what they normally did talking.  Don’t get me wrong—she was brilliant and could be articulate and entertaining.  It just wasn’t like that most of the time.

And just as I knew the predator’s next girlfriend, so too, his previous girlfriend knew me.  But she probably also had her doubts.  She likely knew what people said about her.  She probably wondered what I would think of her if she told me.  In any case, like me, she was nearly silent.

The victims I know of were located in a coed dormitory, one that “had” to be kept coed on the basis of equity.  It was the scholars dorm, complete with visiting professors who roomed there (an Oxford professor would occasionally help me with my calculus) and special programs designed to benefit the residents.  Limiting the dorm to men or women only would be tantamount to denying the other gender an equivalently enriching academic experience, or so the Scholars Program and Student Housing staff argued.

As a result, it was very hard to say that he was up to no good roaming the halls and trolling for new victims.  He did, after all, live there.

He relied on the fact that no one would believe the first girl.  He relied on the fact that I couldn’t remember and hadn’t had time to build a social network.  He relied on the fact that the next girl was depressed and people tuned her out.  He relied on the fact that many (maybe even most) women would rather believe that the victim brought it on herself than that they themselves are largely powerless and that the same thing could happen to them.

Three years later, I refused to cooperate with campus police when they investigated him.  Well, maybe that’s not the best expression.  I asked them if what I said could be admitted as evidence.  They said they doubted it.  I asked them if, like the investigation with which I had so recently misfortunately been involved, I would be asked to keep quiet after giving my statement.  Yes, that would probably be so.

Then how, I wondered, could I possibly help?  If I gave the statement, not only could it not be used in court, but I would be asked to be silent.  At least, without the gag, I had been able to warn the next girlfriend a little, enough that she came to me later.  At least toward the end, I had been able to give her support as she tried to get out.  And she had been able to do the same for the next girl, and that was why, finally, we were sitting with the authorities.

I hope that they were able to stop him, but I realized that my best weapon was my voice.  Not against him, per se.  I couldn't do anything to him, and he, I hope, has been long dealt with.  But against others like him, against those who look lovely but are deadly.

And I hope those of you who are so fortunate never to have dealt with a predator, and whom I hope will remain fortunate enough never to do so, will realize a few things.

First, predators are beautiful.  They are experts at blending in, at being believed, at confessing to a small thing so that you believe that they have told you everything without realizing the depths which lie beneath their story.

Second, going to the police is not what it seems.  They don’t update you after you give a report.  They sometimes (I say “sometimes” only because I certainly don’t know about all police officers or investigations, but this has ALWAYS been the case in my experience) ask you not only not to speak about it but to pretend that you don’t know it has happened at all.  Due process takes time.  It does not happen overnight.  During that time, you have no idea what, if anything, is being done.  But most of the time, you are asked NOT to follow up.  And, of course, the real crux of the matter is that the police often only punish, not protect.  AFTER it has happened, they can do something, often not before, and even when you know that the offense is being repeated, the police may not be able to stop it.

Finally, you can try to do everything you think is possible, but you might just not know how.  Or you may think something was innocent only to later find out that it was not.  You may think to yourself, if only I had intervened, perhaps it wouldn’t have happened.  And the only thing you can really do at that point is forgive yourself, peel your eyes, and take that step the next time.

But two things I have found to be true, that I don’t expect anyone to recognize but those who have, unfortunately, traversed this road.

One is that nothing is gained by judgment. 

Keep going. 

You will be embarrassed, ashamed.  You will second guess yourself repeatedly, first for going to the authorities too quickly and then for not going quickly enough.  You will remember how lovely the predator was, how charming he could be, and wonder if you have misinterpreted what happened.  Then you will remember the horribleness of it all and wonder how you let it get that far.  You will wonder if you did enough to stop it, if there was something else you could have done, if there is a way now that you could keep it from happening again.  You will condemn yourself for your gullibility, your inaction, and even your own condemnation of the perpetrator.  But it won’t do any good.  It won’t make it go away.

Forgive yourself and forgive the others who were blinded with you. 

That doesn’t mean pretend you don’t see.  You have every right to say, “This has to stop.  I am not blind, and I can see what’s happening!” 

Forgive (not CONDONE) the perpetrator and push them toward appropriate penance (be that penal time or simply a change in direction), and forgive those who didn’t speak up or didn’t listen as well with the same caveat.  We all need to speak up and we all need to listen or no one will believe us.  Predators are that good at what they do. 

Unless you are the judge with all the information and evidence, do not judge.  You are not in the position to.  You do not know, nor can you.

The second is that there is no need to give up because you failed this time. 

Just because we have been a victim once does not mean that we have to give up and die.  My life is not over, and this incident will not define me.  There are lessons to be learned.  I’m not saying we should blame the victim.  But I am saying that I could have stopped giving second chances after I recognized a pattern of behavior, and it would have saved me heartache.  I am not saying that everyone has that opportunity to do so, but many of us do.  We can change to be better prepared.

We don’t need to use our shame as an excuse to hide.  Instead, let us use it as a reminder that shame only shields the predator.  As my friends can attest, community can make changes, even if authorities refuse to act.  Don’t hide behind your own limited power and refuse to make a difference.  Be the person you wish had helped you.

The chance to help does come again.  Decide now to do what you know how to.  There may be times that you can’t do anything.  There may be times when you fail.  But you can’t go backwards.  Learn and remember.  Move forward and act.  That is all anyone can really do.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Epic Fail

I often find I make the biggest mistakes when I am most sure of myself.

I had been working in a daycare for several years and had quite a few education classes under my belt when one of my school-agers (names have been changed, obviously), Tim bit Ryan on the neck.

"Yeow!" screeched Ryan.

"Oooooh!" yelled John, usually the one in trouble and quite glad to see he wasn't going to get it this time.  "Miss Beth!  Tim bit Ryan!"

Now, it was the end of a long and otherwise controlled day.  And I will admit that I saw red when I heard those words.  I also had recently read quite a bit on what causes biting--generally the inability to express one's frustrations in words--which is usually extinguished in the second or third year of life.  And it so happened that the toddler and young twos classes were out on the adjoining preschool playground at that moment.

"Time out," I commanded forcefully.  "Not here.  Over there.  In the baby playground.  Because babies bite, not eight-year-olds."

I was controlled.  I followed the facility's guidelines for discipline.  I was creative, maximizing the effect and drawing a comparison that he could understand to the appropriateness of the behavior.

"You're proud of yourself, aren't you, Miss Beth?" Cassandra asked me.  And I was.  For about forty-five seconds.

Then I heard Tim sob, "But we were playing vampires!"

And I suddenly realized that this was not a major behavioral setback that needed ultimate humiliation to curb.  This was a child getting a bit too into it.  Oh, he still needed time out, and he probably also needed a private talking to followed by a period of quiet play by me for quite a while afterward as well as some less formal role-playing later to think about appropriate behavior for similar circumstances in the future.  And I had done all of those kinds of things with kids in the past.  I was trained to do those kinds of things.

But I didn't do them with this child because I didn't listen.  I thought I knew it all, and I judged first.

I am still shamed when I think of the look in his eyes when he turned to me.  I judged first and listened later.  And I utterly crushed him in that moment.

Amanda Carroll from K-Love recently mentioned a parenting bucket list, based on a pinterest page by the Bloggess.  While I think it's an awesome idea, it occurred to me that all of the cool stuff I did with my kids wouldn't matter if I didn't get the basics right.  And this resolution immediately popped into my mind.

For as many days as I have left to live, I want to judge less and listen more (and listening more probably does end up creating a pretty awesome parenting bucket list!).

If I had only been listening to Tim, I wouldn't have hurt him so deeply.  You might think that I had learned my lesson, but no, my brain is surprisingly impervious to wisdom.

There are many times that I have missed the point, but a recent one really shocked me again.  It was one of those days when the weather was unseasonably enjoyable--much like today, except that instead of being unseasonably warm in February, this day was unseasonably cool in August.  In the two decades that have passed since I began caring for children at the age of twelve, I have noticed that these days are dangerous.

ALL the children come out at once, the little ones and the big ones.  ALL the children are excited, the little ones and the big ones.  NO ONE looks out for anybody else, not the little ones or the big ones.

This day was the same. Because I had seen this before, I had developed strategies that usually handled the situation, physical proximity being my favorite. An authority figure in the middle of the group usually reminds the big ones of their responsibilities, and the trickle down in lessened activity usually calms the little ones as well.

Well, maybe not just physical proximity.  Random comments to no one in particular like "I really hope I didn't see hitting over there," "It's probably not a good idea to wrestle someone more than a head taller than you are," and "If you break his arm, he will have to go home, and then who will there be to play with?" help as well.

I had been burned once in the past on a similar day the previous year.  I had spoken to one little girl who--in less than a minute, mind you--had pushed down one kid (4 years younger than her) and grabbed his toy gun, physically dragged my son (3 years younger than her) off of a piece of playground equipment, and then snatched a swing from under her younger sister's butt.  This last was actually quite a feat because the swing was a baby swing hung four feet in the air, and her sister had hoisted herself up between the ropes and was lowering her hips over of the protective bar at the top of the seat when the girl snatched it from underneath and the younger one nearly broke her tailbone falling to the ground (she did manage to catch herself, though).

"Stop," I said.  "Someone is going to get hurt.  You don't pick on little kids.  Now give it back."

Maybe I overstepped my bounds, although my sister reassured me that I don't have to watch anybody mistreat my kid and say nothing.

But I could have said, "Hang on, Elena (again, not her real name).  This really isn't like you.  You always play so nicely and usually protect the little ones.  Are you okay today?"  And all of those things were true.  She was usually very good.  I could have been ready to listen.  I just didn't think of that, and I judged first.

About a week later, her mother threatened to call the police.  My mom said I should have retorted, "Go ahead,  and we'll talk about your child neglect (not watching your kids) and child endangerment (allowing the older one to mistreat the younger one in potentially dangerous ways)."

I did manage to say that if she didn't want me to speak to her kid then her kid had better never touch my son again and the mother needed to watch her or provide me with an address where I could deposit her the next time it was an issue because I wouldn't sit and just watch it.

Of course, I could have empathized and maybe things would have been different.  I could have said, "I'm sorry that you are feeling so worried over my comments to your daughter.  Are you aware that she had just dragged my much younger son off of a piece of playground equipment and accosted to other children, including your other daughter?  I wish that you saw my comments as helpful and not threatening.  And I'm sure, with your concern over my just talking to your daughter, that you can understand how I felt when she dragged my son off that toy and left him on the ground."

I could have listened instead of making threats.  I could have judged a little less.

But, of course, I didn't draw these conclusions.  Shaken from the confrontation, I had decided not to say anything the next time and just keep an eye out.

So this day in August, I was just watching it.  I had gone outside, but the play was still too rough.  After an hour and a half, even my proximity was doing very little to help.  I brought my kids in.  I did kind of keep an eye outside, but not a very good one.  I noticed that most of the other little kids had gone in, and I felt that everyone was probably safe now.  I relaxed a little bit.  I did hear some screaming outside, but I didn't see anything and thought it was just the older kids having fun.

That is, until Thomas's mother came out of her house hollering and tore up to the fence.  Hanging behind her was Thomas (again, not the real name), all muddy and decidedly worse for wear.  Now, Thomas had been one of the earlier offenders with the little kids, but it mainly seemed like he had just gotten stronger and didn't realize how rough he was being.  I was wondering if this was the case with the bigger kids too, since now Thomas was the little one.  I was too far away to tell if his clothes had been torn or if he was bleeding, but I wouldn't have been surprised.

"What is happening here?  What did y'all do to him?" she wanted to know.

"Nothing, Ma'am," answered Joshua.  "We were just playing."

"You were just playing?  Then how come he's the only one beat up and dirty?  Can you answer me that?"

She had a point.  I hadn't seen it.  I knew it hadn't been Joshua because I could always see him from my window, and I hadn't seen him with Thomas.  But it had to be someone out there.  It was someone on that playground.  I just hadn't seen Thomas at all.  I just didn't look.  He later told me that he had yelled and yelled, but I didn't open my door.  I just assumed the screams were happy play.  I didn't listen.

I went to Thomas's house and apologized to his mother.  I told her that he could always knock on my door.  I open the window now all the time when the kids are out there.

You see, in May 2008, an acquaintance of mine lost her son to drowning (after an alleged bullying incident) as fifteen people apparently watched and did nothing. 

And it floors me that this happened to Thomas. 

It floors me because I was right there.  

It's time for me to stop caring what people say about me, what people think.  It's time for me to listen and not just sit back.  I am glad Thomas is okay.

And it's also time for people passing by to stop saying, "Where are the parents?" when they see something going wrong.

You are not blind, and you can do something.  I'm not saying blame the parents.  I'm not saying blame the kids.  But I am saying a casual, "Hey, are you all okay over there?  Do I need to get somebody's parents?" can go a long way to preventing injury.

You see, listening is more than just sitting back.  It is being there, making contact, asking questions, and, most importantly, it is holding back evaluation until you have heard all of the answers.  Sometimes, you may never hear them all.  But that might be okay because sometimes just listening goes further to stopping the problem than all the judgment and punishment ever can.