Right Side Up

playground

Face down. Flung across the bed. He cries and cries, body shuddering with sobs. Something has happened outside.

I heard about it first from an upstairs neighbor who called me after witnessing the melee from her balcony. Then two little girls, teary and clutching each other, filled me in on oh-so-many details of Bug punching one of them. The bigger kids arrived in a pack to corroborate.

My boy, the one who hits.

My boy, the object of this witch hunt. Hiding somewhere. Shunned.

Even so, I stay chill. This is our community and we’re all stuck with each other. I’ve learned all the kids’ names. Met all the parents. Every day for nearly four years, I’ve walked in loops around the complex with our dog and chatted with anyone who crosses my path.

I’m also figuring out that helping my kiddo navigate the complicated world of friendship and adolescence works better when I stay relaxed. Even if it means reaching down past the reactive anger. Even if he’s made an awful choice. Demonstrating trust in our connections and resourcefulness means welcoming my boy with love.

I thank the kids for letting me know me, and tell them I’ll talk to Bug when I find him. I call to him, “Hey bud, let’s go in and get ready for dinner.” Eventually he emerges from the bushes, red-faced and fuming, and follows me inside.

That’s when storm breaks. I can hardly get the question out — “What happened?” — before he’s shouting in self-defense. He stomps to the bedroom and throws himself down. The tears erupt. I perch on the edge of the mattress. “I’m so sorry you’re having trouble with your friends. It sounds really hard.” Carefully at first, I touch his back. He lets me. He actually lets me.

This is a breakthrough of earthquake magnitude. No one else on the planet would even feel a shiver from this little touch. What’s so remarkable, after all? This is what competent moms do, right? Give their children a soft place to land?

Not for us, though. Not for the several years now. This boy, an only child, so often rages at me when he’s hurt. He spits and shouts the blame for all his hard feelings onto me, maybe because I’m the closest of all.

Maybe, also, because I’ve roared out my own anxieties and confusion about raising a child in this unsteady world right back onto him.

Today, though, I sit and rub his back while he cries.

For the most past few months, something has changed. I’ve been able to open to him as he is, and to tap into a kind of faith in his journey. I can’t determine what happens on the playground or the classroom or in the dark corners of my child’s heart. Like all of us, I can only manage how I respond. The universe of my control extends to what I choose to believe and how I let those beliefs guide my actions and words — and no further. This requires a radical kind of acceptance. Faith, boundaries, letting go.

So I give comfort even when he may be wrong.

Now my boy actually leans into that comfort.

Then he talks.

His narrative twists and squirms around the confession. Finally, quietly, admits he did hit the little girl. There is more to the story. More that he experienced before that moment. He works his way through it, calming down, responding to questions scrubbed of judgment. I say again that I hear how hurt his feelings are. Then he gives me permission to go talk with the others.

Out I go. I find the little girl and have a kind yet firm conversation with her. She tears up all over again. This time it’s she who twists and squirms her way to an admission of her own. The oh-so-many details she and her sister catalogued earlier left out a few critical points. She tells me now that she jumped into a play wrestling match between bigger kids. She hit Bug with a sword hard enough to break it. It was his sword that broke, and she wouldn’t relinquish it afterward. After the conflict, she and her sister started accusing Bug of stealing their skateboard.

I find the bigger kids next. Ask them more about the story, and they too fill in missing details. We keep the conversation casual. No blame, no sternness. Just a chat. By using names — theirs, others — I try to walk the talk of cultivating connections in community. I remind them that they have to be careful about what they model for the younger ones. The girls’ skateboard disappeared, yes, as did Bug’s giant Nerf gun and some of their toys and bikes too. This condo complex has people coming into and out of it all the time. As a team, as neighbors, they need to remember that rumors, gossip, and ganging-up can ruin what’s best about their friendship.

Back in the house, Bug’s breathing has calmed. He’s in the kitchen finishing off a glass of water and he lets me put my arm around him, if only for a beat. I remind him how much I appreciate his telling me the truth. We talk again about the hitting — about getting some distance between impulse and action, about what to do with powerful feelings.

“Can I go back out?” he asks.

“Of course.”

He and the others play for another hour outside. Squeals, shouts, a cacophony of feet. Soon it is dark. Everyone heads in for dinner. My boy comes home breathless and smiling.


Image: Children Playing at a Playground, source unknown, 1930’s, Everett Collection

 

 

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