“At school, on the playground, you can’t just play with one friend,” Remy complains. “You have to be friends with everyone. Sometimes, I just want to play with Gabe.” As I write those words down, I wish I could adequately convey Remy’s full, pouty lips, his pained blue eyes, his soft, rounded cheeks, and the concave little slump of his shoulders as he conveys to me that this set of negotiations on the playground is really, really hard for him to figure out. When I ask what he plays on the playground, he explains, “I play kickball, because it’s not something you can do with just one person.” And this, of course, is part of why games like kickball and tag and four square are good for the playground, precisely because they are group activities, and can pretty easily absorb a lot of kids’ participation.
Maybe one of the mind-blowing discoveries of parenthood is this: being nice isn’t always natural. It requires practice, it requires learning some rules. Just because a child isn’t always kind, doesn’t make him or her an unkind or not nice person. But humans are sometimes cranky, sometimes rude, and sometimes just don’t like someone or don’t want to do the task at hand. I’m not sure why I found this so surprising, because I don’t always feel nice; I don’t always want to be nice, or do what’s on the agenda, either.
Still, being a parent, you have to think about these things from a whole new angle. You are the teacher, the role model and the arbiter, to some degree, of the lines in the sand (in the spot on the beach or sandbox where your children play). You have to draw your lines, and sometimes, you find yourself negotiating with other grown-up parents (or, as Saskia, 19 months, calls them, “growm-ups”) about those lines’ intersections with their children’s lines.
When Remy complained about the be-friends-with-everyone demand at school, I found myself remembering a story from my childhood–one of those signature tales of Sarah as a kid–from when I was four. My mother had a neighbor she felt sorry for (not sure why, divorce maybe) and so she invited the neighbor’s kid over to play. I did not want to play with the neighbor’s kid. I sat on the stairs that rose up from the front hallway (beige carpet, beige and white wallpaper) and declared (to my mother’s chagrin), “You invited her; you play with her.” At four, a rounded little girl with dark hair and dark eyes and a pretty commanding pout myself, I’m sure it was like Remy’s complaint; beyond the words themselves, you needed to see the full body in action, hear the distressed, whiny voice pleading its case.
To Remy, I offered a hug, and these words: “Playing kickball sounds like a really good choice.” I also said, “It’s hard not to get to be with just Gabe, but you have a lot of time away from school to spend with him.” That’s an imperfect answer–and the only one I can offer, because the play-with-everyone rule seems like an important one (besides, I don’t make the rules at school).
While I have no hard and fast “rule” myself–and with four very different kids, at different stages, I have learned hard and fast “rules” don’t hold anyway, for myriad reasons–about playing with other kids, for the most part with Remy (lovely, often cranky boy), I expect him to go to school–and beyond that, I don’t schedule too many other activities or demand that he have play dates (unless he asks for them). (Well, sometimes, I have him read to me, which isn’t always his top choice). And sometimes, I find myself feeling a little bit like the lines I draw don’t intersect easily with others’ (say, people whose kids want to play outside of school with Remy more than he desires play time with them). My “job” is to respect and protect my child and teach him to be kind and respectful to others, and to understand that he can have his boundaries and be a kind person at the same time. I trust that my shepherding both his safety and his respect for others’ feelings will give him the security and freedom eventually to operate in the world as a kind, compassionate, self-confident adult (fingers crossed). It’s complicated to learn to become a person out in the world, even a generally sweet, friendly community, that’s for sure.
Which leads me to this question: is civility an old-fashioned concept? The question may sound trite, but as I watched the brouhaha unfold after Representative Joe Wilson called out President Obama as a liar during the President’s address, I found myself less wrapped up in whether the congressman should be reprimanded or not than saddened that either dirty tactics seem to be fair game to the most conservative branch of the Republican party or that a self-censor button is breaking down between us as humans and we now feel entitled to treat one another poorly, even in situations where respect has been considered an essential part of how we proceed (for, while the English argue vociferously in Parliament–and sometimes, rudely–in the United States, custom on the House floor has been to disagree in more gentile fashion with my friend, Representative so-and-so from the Great State of wherever).
There were many commentaries following that incident–including President Obama’s joking with David Letterman about it–and the questions boiled down to whether the Congressman’s remark was part of a larger political tactic or an outburst of racism. One friend pointed out that local news coverage where she lives (Philadelphia) refers to the President as Mr. Obama. She remarked, “I don’t remember the news outlets calling President Bush, Mr. Bush.” There’s a line between being overly sensitive and keeping a vigilant eye on ensuring that harsh words don’t spin out of control: toward disregard for others or toward violence. My friend’s question–as was true of others’ questions after that Joe Wilson incident–serves to keep sight of that line, and on what side of it we–the collective we–are standing.
Keeping that idea of the line in mind, take Alex Merritt, a high school student in suburban Minneapolis. According to an article in Newsweek, Merritt was not a kid people teased or messed with; a solidly built teen, he managed to avoid social “speed bumps,” until he enrolled in a vocational program a few periods a day during his junior year of high school, that is. From the Newsweek article: “”Kids were calling me fag, they were calling me queer,'” recalls Merritt, who says that he is straight. The Minnesota native, then 16, says that he initially decided to laugh along with the verbal attacks, hoping they would disappear. Instead, he says they escalated.” And here’s a critical piece of information: “In a damning report issued by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and made public last month, the alleged incidents at STEP were perpetrated by social-studies instructor Diane Cleveland and Walter Filson, a former cop who taught a course on law enforcement.”
Painful as it is to imagine kids inflicting hurt like this upon other kids, it’s even worse to imagine teachers inflicting such intolerance and cruelty upon their students.
With weak protections in many states, and a lot of fear in many school districts about stepping forward with “rainbow” programming to dispel bias, for fear of conservative parents’ uproar, it’s no surprise that according to GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), the percentage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender middle and high school students who report harassment has hovered above 80 percent since 1999, the first year the New York-based group conducted surveys to learn about school climates.
Politeness in formal settings–the Halls of Congress, a classroom–does not guarantee safe or kind behavior on the playground, on the street, or in the public bathroom. Formality–addressing the President as the President or the teachers by their full names–also does not assure politeness. But somehow, I feel there’s a relationship between acting in good faith–with respect–and treating each other well. Teachers, congressional leaders, parents alike owe one another–and the younger generations–that show of respect, that modeling of respect.
I don’t think it’s simple, any of this, especially when things like racism or homophobia come into the mix. But I’m hoping–as a parent and a woman and a citizen–that we take respect seriously. It seems like the starting point toward tolerance, the baseline.