My son wanted to have his birthday party at a gymnastics center, which would naturally include a lot of running, bouncing, and jumping. I thought that for a group of nine-year-old boys who I would rather not have running, bouncing, and jumping all over my house, it was an excellent idea.
We went to the center to put a deposit down on the party. They had a “wrestling room,” which was just an empty room with thick mats. I told the boys it was OK to hang out there while I filled out the paperwork. They could watch what was going on in the gym and tackle each other at the same time. I thought they’d be safely occupied for a few minutes.
When I was done I went up to collect them. A younger boy had joined them and I could tell by the yells as I approached the room that the wrestling had gotten wild. When I walked in I saw Younger laying on the ground, with a strange three-year-old boy stomping on his head.
I went into Child Care Professional mode. “Boys! It’s time to go! Come over here and get your shoes on.” (They had to take them off to go in the wrestle room – I’m pretty sure that’s an excellent safety precaution on the part of the owners.)
Younger walked over, a little stunned and shy, mumbling about how shocked he was that “that kid just kicked me in the head.”
“I know,” I said. “Did it hurt?”
“A little, well not that much but my head hurts. I just can’t believe he did that.”
In the meantime, Older is still trying to shake the kid off. If I’d been there, I would have been able to tell right off the bat that this was a child you don’t escalate and calmed the situation down. But 9- and 7-year-old boys who are already locked in battle can’t make that distinction, nor do they have the ability to stop it once it starts to spin out of control.
I say, “Older, come put your shoes on!”
He says, “I’m trying! I can’t get this kid off me! Who ARE you!? Where are your parents!?”
He half-drags the boy over to where the shoes are, when the boy sees one of those riding horse stick things. He immediately grabs it and starts chasing Older back into the wrestling area.
Older starts to get serious. He’s not playing anymore. He grabs the stick and tries to wrench it away, but the boy is expecting this. They start a tug-of-war with Older eventually winning, only because he’s more than twice this kid’s size. He brings the stick back to the corner where we are putting shoes on and puts it down. Kiddo starts making a bee-line for it. In my day care provider wisdom, I grab the stick and sit on it.
Stymied!! The kid thinks about it, looks at me, gives it a half-hearted pull, and realizes I’m not budging. I’m also not engaging. He gives up on us and runs into the next room where some staff members are taking a snack break.
Apparently the staff members know him and he is quickly shooed away. By now Older and Younger have their shoes on but they are not tied.
He’s back for more. Older says, “I can’t take this kid anymore!” I say, “Let’s just go downstairs and finish tying our shoes.” They both start protesting – but – but – my shoes aren’t tied! I can’t walk!
I don’t care, I think, we need to make an escape – NOW!!
As we’re booking down the stairs I tell my protesting boys, “The third finger of self-defense is creating distance! Let’s make some distance!! Keep moving!!”
We get to the downstairs lobby and sit down to tie the shoelaces. In a matter of seconds I hear Older groan. “Oh nooooo.”
The kid is right next to us. It’s like a bad horror movie. I’m wondering if I’m going to have to body-slam him or run out the door with my boys’ shoelaces a-flyin in the wind. But I notice he’s approaching slowly. He has a toy he wants us to see. He’s looking at Older, who is griping about how none of this was his fault, and I say to the boy, “Do you want to show us your toy?”
Bingo. The moment of connection. He liked us. He tested us out, pushing all our buttons to see what we would do. When he realized all his crazy tricks weren’t getting us, he tried another tack. As soon as he put the toy down, Older and Younger were all over it, trying to get it to go faster and farther (it was a motorcycle launcher).
Luckily I knew we were leaving in three minutes and
we’d never see him again we didn’t have to get invested in this relationship, so I let them play. But it was such an interesting process to watch. If it happened to the mom I was ten years ago, I would have had a fit and hated this child. But today, with all the gifts that my job has given me, I knew every trick to stay ahead of him.
I really do hope that my boys are picking up some of these skills: de-escalating, keeping strong boundaries, making connections, handling yourself with calmness in the face of someone who is out of control. I know that these are the most important lessons to come out of the encounter, rather than saying “What a horrible child!” and stomping away in anger and judgement.
With all the skills we used, we were able to turn the situation around and make a friend rather than an enemy. If only our kids were able to do this consistently, and the knowledge would come to them when they’re in the heat of the moment. In the school halls. The lunchroom. The bus. At recess. I guess the only way I can be assured that it might happen is to continue living the example in this way.
Lord, help me. This parenting is hard work.