I know what you did last play group

Watching movies, I almost always think the characters should have seen violence coming.  There’s a palpable crackle in the air.  The area’s deserted.  It’s usually dark.  The creepy music really ought to tip them off as well.  In real life, unfortunately, attacks occur in even the most innocuous of settings.

I settled my eight month-old next to a small box decorated with large colored beads sliding along sturdy metal wires in the children’s section of the Seattle Public Library.  A two year-old boy promptly plopped down on the opposite side of the box.  When Vivi reached toward his side of the toy, I restrained her.  Even though we’d never had a problem, I instinctively treated older children like dogs: little beasts that I’m sure someone loves but that nonetheless carry the potential to maim.  I therefore asked the boy’s mother whether I could shift Viv a few inches closer.  “Sure, of course,” she replied with a carefree flip of her long brown hair.  In a movie, this is the part where I’d yell “honey, are you home?” and bend over to untie my running shoes, lulled into complacency by the satisfying beep of my home alarm system and totally oblivious to the hulking shape only partially concealed by shadows a mere arm’s reach away.  No sooner had I placed Vivi down than the boy began furiously flailing his limbs, kicking and hitting my infant.  “Sorry,” his mom said, “sometimes he does that,” like he’d just picked his nose or something.  Vivi and I stared at each other with identical expressions of shock, though her “what the heck just happened” quickly faded to “ohhhh, green bead” while my “what the heck just happened” rapidly darkened to “I could sue if the bitch were a dog owner.”

After Vivi learned to pull herself up to stand and “cruise” (walk along a piece of furniture or wall by facing it and bracing herself with both hands) about six months later, I let her stand at the Seattle Aquarium’s seal exhibit alone.  She loved to wobble before the big glass tank, banging her little fists on the photo of the fur seal pasted to it.  Out of nowhere one day, a pigtailed five year-old raced up to Viv, yelled “NO!  Don’t hit the picture!” and began administering a spanking.  I suppressed the urge to execute a little corporal punishment of my own and waited for the girl’s parents to spring into action.  In the past, whenever a child so much as grabbed a toy from Vivi, a blaze of maternal indignation streaked across my field of vision, righting the wrong and administering a reprimand before I’d even had time to think about whether or not to intervene.  Watching my 14 month-old stare up in confusion as a looming giant’s hand approached her bottom for the fourth time, I heard myself say, “Excuse me.  We do not hit one another.”  This apparently finally caught the attention of the girl’s father who roughly grabbed her by the arm, dragged her three feet to the left, and smacked her upside the head.

When these stranger attacks were followed by repeated incidents involving frequent play pals, I ended up chatting about kiddie violence with a group of stay-at-home moms.  One person declared no problem disciplining the offending child, regardless of whether she’d given birth to it (I often deprive children, including my own, of gender when they anger me; compare “isn’t she adorable with her little two-tooth smile?” with “why the hell won’t it nap?”).  But the interventionist, like Churchill before her, soon became the black sheep.  Almost everyone else espoused the “kids will be kids” approach, counseling parents to just butt out.  Finally another mother spoke up to say that she doesn’t sit idly by.  No, not her.  She jumps up to chastise her assaulted son for crying.

I understand growing concern about “helicopter parenting” (see http://m.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/07/how-to-land-your-kid-in-therapy/8555/) and how it prevents kids from developing the social and emotional tools needed to lead a happy life, but I nonetheless disagree with the pure laissez-faire approach.  Let’s be clear here.  I’m not the mom who gasps and whisks her kid away when an excited little one accidentally throws an elbow.  When Viv falls down or gets inadvertently pushed, we go with the “brush it off” approach, telling her she’s “a tough cookie.”  These days she bounces right up, often smiling with pride as she says, “I felled.  I’m okay.  Vivi a tutt cuh-tee.”  But when another child intentionally hits, kicks, bites, or mauls her like a feral ferret, I seize the teaching moment.  In a voice loud enough for the other child to hear, I look into Viv’s upturned face and say, “We don’t hurt each other on purpose.  It’s wrong that s/he hit you.  Being hit made you feel sad.”  On the rare occasions when she’s the one committing the battery, I make sure to acknowledge and validate the motivating emotion – usually frustration or jealousy – but point to her victim’s distress.  In both cases I further clarify that she needs to use words to express herself (either, “no, stop, please don’t hit me” or “I want that toy; please share it with me”) not only to avoid violence the next time around but also to keep her from simply wilting when she’s on the receiving end.

Why such an extensive protocol?  I’d like to say my pacifist religious upbringing plays a role, but at base, it’s just because I’m a giant, unusually coordinated toddler.  You see, my best predictor for how Viv will respond to a particular stimulus is how I would in her shoes.  First, I like clear, explicated rules.  I tell Viv things like “we don’t put our feet in the potty because we don’t want poopies and peepee on our feet,” since I agree that the toilet looks like a great place to cool down feet and enjoy a little afternoon splashing.  Second, when asked to restrain my natural impulses I want to know why I should give an owl’s hoot and what’s in it for me.  I dislike sharing immensely.  I do it because I like the gratitude and gratification.  Accordingly, I tell Viv that “we share toys because we get to make other people happy.”  Third, I can’t stand hypocrisy.  Monkey see, monkey demand free rein to do.  As a parent that means I don’t think yelling at my kid is a remotely productive response to her own verbal outbursts (although that can often be easier believed than executed).  Finally, I don’t simply forget.  Awesome birthday gift (2011), three points Curtis; chair thrown at my head hard enough to splinter the wooden door I slammed closed as a shield (1996), negative three points Curtis.  Admit to wrongdoing and apologize, slate wiped clean.  Try to move forward without appropriate discussion, and, like a two year-old, I’ll never let it go.  Roll all these impulses together, and you’ve got my golden rule of parenting: acknowledge events (including others’ transgressions) and the emotions behind them and discuss them in relation to consistent, clearly explained and justified rules.

As Viv gets older, I increasingly stay on the sidelines, interjecting only when the kids aren’t of evenly matched size or age.  (Since I generally consider myself a post-feminist, I was surprised to realize that I’m also more inclined to intervene when a boy hits a girl.)  But even as she grows, if my periodic voice-over starts to sound more like dubbing, I stop playdating the offender’s mom.  After all, I’d be seriously pissed off if every time we flew down to San Francisco my mom invited me out to do something fun, all the while knowing full well that someone was going to smack me and take my purse as the theme to “Jaws” played over the loudspeakers.

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