Thursday, January 3, 2013

Follow up: The Fallacy of Using Your Words

A year or so ago, I wrote a post, Going to War in Shoes of Peace, on using your words and how it sometimes doesn't work (it's in the center of the post if you're looking).  And I posted it before everything with the neighboring child was actually done, but I never followed up on it.  So here it is.

The child in question, who has long since moved out of our little neighborhood, continued to run over other children, literally.  They would be playing, and he would run up to play and just keep going--right through them, right over them--leaving them lying crying on the ground with the occasional shoe print emblazoned on a sleeve or a sock.  Needless to say, it was a problem.

At the time that I wrote the other post, I didn't know how everything had concluded that afternoon.  Once I went inside, I was ignorant of what had occurred outside.  What I did write about were the threats the parents made (what I meant when I asked, "Are my neighbors serious or just running their mouths (which I know that they do from time to time)?").  The threats were so blatant that I actually called the school and spoke to a fill-in principal (the actual principal was on vacation), who advised me to call the police.  While I know many good police officers, it seemed to me that this situation--one that required prevention and not punishment--was not yet a job for the police, who, in my experience, can do little to prevent but a lot to punish.

And so I did what I do when I don't know what to do.  I prayed.

One afternoon a week or two later, four children (to the best of my recollection.  These are the four I remember) and I were standing in front of a neighbor's door.  I'll call the kids "Little One" (my little one), "Said Child" (the child I have been speaking about), "Cutie" (the neighbor whose house it was who is devilishly cute and just as devilishly ornery--though devoid of malice), and "Ivana the Terrible" (a neighbor from a different complex who is adorable but doesn't always make the most peace-making of choices.  To be honest, I think she could incite a riot at a prayer meeting).

Ivana the Terrible had a new toy that she was showing to the other kids.  I forget what it was.  Like all youngsters, showing the toy generally consisted of thrusting it under the friends' noses in turn at a distance of two inches and forbidding them to lay hands on it while they admire it with a necessarily cross-eyed gaze.

"I wanna touch it!" cried Said Child, advancing toe-to-toe, and perhaps actually toe-on-toe, with Ivana.

Cutie intervened, "No!  It's hers!"

Said Child tried to grab the toy.  Little One stepped up.  "She said, 'No!'"

Said Child whirled, pushing Little One, intentionally or not, to the ground.  Little One's head missed the brick wall by millimeters.

"Sto-o-op!" Cutie wailed.  "Back off!"

Said Child advanced toward Cutie, who fell backward into a deck chair in front of his door.

That's when I, who had been momentarily stunned for the 15 or so seconds it took for all of this to happen, stepped in--literally.  Squeezing myself between Cutie and Said Child and assuming Momma-Bear Stance (drawn up to full height, chest puffed out, feet shoulder width apart, arms akimbo), I said in my sternest tone, "He asked you to back off."

"It's everybody's porch," intoned Said Child.

"But you are inches from his face in front of his door.  This is his space.  Back off."

Said Child retreated three inches.


"That's not backing off," I said.  "Keep going."

Said Child moved a foot or so away.

"Not enough.  You go play by your own door."  Never turning away from me, Said Child walked backward a few yards down the porch.

"You can't keep me here," he said.

"No, but I will absolutely tell your mother if I find you here again after you've been told to leave Cutie alone."

At this point, Ivana the Terrible, who had actually been cowering behind my back, decided she might like me.  We've been friends ever since.  Little One, who saw the action was done, now decided that his hands hurt more than he thought and started to cry.  Cutie stood up from his chair and puffed out his chest, a young lion naturally asserting dominion over his territory.  I dusted Little One off and started to lead him home across the parking lot.  I glanced back and, no surprise, saw Said Child advancing on Cutie.

"I still see you!" I called.  Said Child retreated.  In spite of the December chill, I kept the window open till dark that day, occasionally crying out, "What did I say?" when Said Child advanced on Cutie.  I didn't bother with Ivana.  I knew from experience that Ivana could take care of herself.

But I knew the time had come.  I had to talk to The Parents.  Again.  I prayed a whole lot that afternoon.  I even asked a couple of others to pray.  I decided to try The Mother since the last time I had initially spoken to The Father.  I watched out the window for The Mother's car.  I saw her come home.  I saw her husband leave.  I decided to wait 45 minutes or so to give her some down time. 

With my children settled in front of their favorite show and with one more prayer on my lips, I headed across the parking lot and knocked on the door.  Said Child opened it.  He was busy shedding his clothing.

"Is your mother home?" I asked.  The Mother bounded down the steps at that moment and gasped.  "Said Child!  You can't do that!  Go get dressed!"  She turned to me geared for war.

My heart was suddenly moved toward her.  You see, that's what God does and what I'm not capable of doing.  "Mother," I said, and I think she could hear the concern, kindness, and absence of judgment--that God had suddenly wrought in me--in my voice.  "I need to talk to you about something, but I don't want to be in your face and I don't want to be here at a bad time.  If you need some time right now, I can come back later.  I just really need to talk to you."

After all, I know what it's like to have kids who act up and act out (have you read Dancing in the Rain?).  Who am I to judge?  We are all hanging in there together.

The guardedness on The Mother's face melted.  "Just give me a minute," she said.

She closed the door for a few moments and then reappeared.

"Is this about Said Child?" she asked.

"Well, yes," I said, "But I don't want you to change him, and I don't want to complain.  I am having some problems, and I want your advice on what you think would be the most effective and beneficial way to handle it."  Those words were God's, not mine, because I don't think that way.  And it was apparently what she needed to hear because she leaned back and listened.

"I have a rule with my kids," I continued, "That they are not to touch Said Child.  They're not supposed to hit anybody, but especially not Said Child.  I have explained that Said Child just wants to play and doesn't understand that he's rough and sometimes hurts.  They are supposed to tell him when they think he's being too rough and to get me to stand outside or to come in if he doesn't stop."

The Mother started, "Oh!  He shouldn't be doing those things..."

"I understand," I interrupted.  "We have issues in my house, too.  It's a learning experience, and changes are slow.  I'm not trying to change Said Child.  I am just trying to make playing safe."

"But," I continued, "we have a new problem.  A few times, Said Child has pushed Little One.  Little One is too small to defend himself against Said Child.  It's normally on grass and not a big deal.  But today, Little One almost hit his head on the brick wall.  I don't know what to do other than tell Little One to push back.  Do you have any ideas?  I don't think that Said Child means to hurt Little One.  But Little One's going to get hurt, and I need to prevent that.  Do you know a way that I can communicate this to Said Child so that he understands, his feelings aren't hurt, and he doesn't feel like a bad kid?"

The Mother nodded.  She was quiet for a moment, then she said, "Let me try to talk to him a bit, and I'll get back to you."  She started to go in and then paused.  "I'm sorry he pushed your son."

"It's not your fault, Mother," I said.  "I know you're trying.  We're all in this together."

She went in, and I went home.

The next morning she came up to me at the bus stop.  "I think he should be a little better now," she said.  "And I also wanted to say you were right when you came up to our house and told The Father that it was dangerous for Said Child to play outside that day.  Another kid beat him up.  Bad."  Then The Mother went on and on about The Other Child.  She is not the only mother to have gone on about this Other Child, but at the same time, she didn't recognize (nor did some of the other mothers) that her (and my) child contribute to Other Child's behavior.

She began intervening more, and I spent more time outside.  I tried warning more, not just The Mother, but every mother if I saw a problem coming.  I tried to be more involved in preventing.

And, in many cases, it worked.  The Mother and I became friends.  She and The Father gave Little One a bike to use until he was tall enough for a big one, and they offered to help with a number of other things.  When The Father got a great job that included rent on a house, I was happy for them.

The thing was, it wasn't just my words that solved the problem.  My first words did nothing to prevent Said Child from being beaten.  The only staying of action happened through physical intervention.  Thinking that The Mother's words to Other Child's Mother were probably enough for Other Child's Mother, I chose not to talk to Other Child's Mother.  Perhaps I ought to have.  There would be other problems for Other Child, and perhaps they could have been prevented.

But in each case, Other Child had used his words in the presence of adults before laying hands on any other child.  When actual actions were taken on the part of others--when I physically stood between Other Child and Said Child, when I physically stood between Cutie and Said Child--then things changed.  It was never the words alone.

I cannot overemphasize this point enough:  Words only work if they are heard and followed by action. 

Yes, I needed to warn The Mother.  But more importantly, I needed to watch, call, and stand between.  Yes, I needed to talk to The Mother, but I don't think it was my actual words that made any difference.  It was the absence of judgment and the honest concern for the well-being of both Said Child and Little One.  And I don't think it was only her talking to Said Child that made a difference; it was her presence outside, her watching him, her intervening, the two of us together agreeing on fairness in front of all of the children playing outside.  Intervention made a difference, not words alone.

And I want to make abundantly clear, Other Child also had issues.  Other Child repeatedly has responded to others with violence.  But Other Child also has a history of protecting children.  Other Child often takes responsibility for others, walking dogs, escorting little ones home.  No child is perfect, and we all agree on that.  But neither is any child--any human--worthy of demonization, and I think we forget that often.

But I bring up Other Child because he would later be punished by the justice system for later violence, as is often the case with violence.  But it was not surprising.  And not just surprising because it was Other Child.  It was not surprising because I had heard Other Child say that he couldn't handle the situation.  Not just once.  Several times.  I heard him ask the bus driver to be moved.  I saw that the request was ignored.  I know that he was given an assigned seat and so moving away was out of his power. 

I heard his words, but I did not act.  I wish I could change that.  Another child was later hurt, and Other Child was punished formally before officials.  Other Child is also a victim here--a victim of adults who heard and did nothing. Yes, the end might have been the same, but then again, it might not have.

If I had done something, not just listened and seen that the request was ignored, maybe both children could have been spared what happened.  I am not averse to punishment, but I don't think it has many reforming attributes.  And I am all about prevention and reformation.

So when I saw trouble coming again--not with Said Child or Other Child in particular, but with several children.  I didn't just talk once, and I didn't just listen.  I kept talking.  I found support in official places, and those people got the right people on board, and they took action.  And I make sure I am there.  Once again, I truly believe presence, a physical reminder, is the most efficient enforcer.  I see you.  I won't shut up, and if you want to cause trouble, you're going to have to go through me.  No one has tried to go through me. 

No, things are not perfect.  But no one is currently sitting in judgment.  Community is working.  But it takes more than just words.

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