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.