Back in the days when I had pre-schoolers, I was outside chatting with some moms, all of us happy to be free from our winter weary homes on a beautiful spring day. My eyes did a routine scan for the two boys who belonged to me on the kid crowded field. I couldn’t believe what I saw.
A group had gathered around my two year old, and were taking turns kicking him. He would fall over and then get up, only to find himself sprawled on the grass again. And what was most horrifying to me was that his brother, (who was four), was in the circle of older boys. I raced to the aid of my little son and grabbed his brother's hand and hurried inside. My two year old seemed okay. I think I stopped the activity before he realized he was a victim. His brother needed a time out and so did I, so I sent him to the stairs and then collapsed on a chair. I had worked very hard to nurture sibling alliance over the past year and had so hoped that my two sons would love and care for each other. I felt angry, hurt and betrayed. But I had seen, in the past, how important it was to access the child’s perspective and so I summoned my self-control and went to the stairs. I asked calmly, looking into his anxious eyes, “what were you doing out there?”
“We were playing a game where we took turns kicking my little brother.”
“Did you think that was a good game?” I asked, carefully postponing my fury until I’d finished my inquiry.
“No” he said, “I didn’t want to play that game at all. I wanted to dig tunnels in the sandbox. But you said that if I wanted to have friends I had to do what they wanted sometimes, and not always what I wanted, and that’s what they wanted to do.” He burst into tears.
Ah, it was true. I did say that. We were new in the neighborhood and I was giving my son advice on how to make friends. But I’d forgotten that he did not know all the caveats and contexts that are assumed with such counsel. In his little four year old mind, he was just doing what mommy said. He was sad and confused. I wrapped him in my arms and began to explain.
It all worked out happily that day but it easily could have gone awry. I could easily have not noticed the 'game' in time and my little son could have been hurt physically and probably more importantly, hurt emotionally. It would have been very easy to assume that there was no possible explanation valid enough for what I had just witnessed with my own eyes. It would have been easy to punish my oldest son with no questions asked. I mean... really! What's there to ask when you see your oldest son and his friends kicking your 2 year old son?
But there was an explanation. A good one. An explanation where something I had said was part of the problem. When we unravel problems, we often find, quite unexpectedly, that some of the threads have their origin in our hands. When we are calm and open to this, the problem can usually be corrected. That day I was reminded again how important it is to listen carefully in order to untangle the ancient what-you-heard-is-not-what-I-meant communication knot
We had a long conversation about brothers and kindness and loyalty. We talked about how confusing it can be to feel one thing and be told another. My oldest son told me about other times when he had felt like that and we all hugged. “Friends will come and friends will go but brothers are forever” we marched around the room and chanted loudly.
So my counsel to parents (or anyone in any kind of relationship) is this. Even when things look incontestably, irrefutably, undeniably crystal clear from where you're standing, if the other person is behaving in a way that hurts, confuses or angers you, give them a chance to explain. Inquire in a way that does not put them on the defensive. Take a time out before talking if necessary. But give the relationship the gift of intentionally opening yourself to their perspective. I have never ceased to be surprised at what is going on in other people's minds on occasions when I had simply assumed what I thought was perfectly obvious from the circumstances.
If you can't do this, call me. Seriously. It's totally worth it.