One afternoon at the Underhill this week my son’s posse came running up to me: “Ben’s Mom: Ben's hurt!” Ben’s posse consisted, that moment, of Rajiv and Julian, two friends from his first-grade class at P.S. 9. I found Ben over by the bronze duck sprinkler—drenched, very upset but physically intact.
“That kid punched me,” he told me. “He punched me again and again and wouldn’t stop!”
He pointed at a boy I recognized from another class.
“What happened? Why did he punch you?” I asked.
“Well, I forgot his name and that made him mad…”
The posse backed up Ben’s story but now came the hard part. Ben wanted me to go and talk to the boy … or better still, to his mother. It was one of those moments that form the landscape of a playground as much as the jungle gyms and baby swings and that raise questions that can surprise a person with their global reach.
Over the years since Ben was old enough to enjoy a playground, we’ve taught him all the usual stuff—share-don’t-throw-sand-use-words-not-fists-to-resolve-a-conflict—but I’ve also encouraged him to come and get me if he needs help. In recent years, my playground eyes have been focused primarily on Ben’s little sister—and the emphasis, of course, has shifted from “come and get me” to “work it out yourselves”—but Ben still knows I’m ready to step in.
Now, as Ben stood before me clearly very upset, I dithered. Had I somehow failed to teach him self-reliance? Yes, the other kid had hit him—but wasn’t Ben old enough now just to walk away? Besides, parents like to hear that our kids have hit someone about as much as we like to see them licking the handpole on the subway. I didn’t relish walking up to a fellow-P.S. 9 parent with an accusation.
“Ben,” I started, “I didn’t see what happened.”
“He really hurt me! Talk to him!”
Ben’s three-year-old sister was in one of her Underhill funks which involved refusing to put on her swimsuit and dogging my every step because none of her toddler buddies was around. She watched Ben impassively, a fine sweat at her brow, absorbing the seriousness of this conflict with the expression of a minor security council member watching US deliberations on bombing Libya.
“Ben, I know you’re upset but—"
Deciding that approaching the mother was the lesser of two evils, I took my daughter’s hand and reluctantly sidled toward her. (It occurred to me as I neared her that I could not remember her name and that there was something admirably direct about her son’s response to Ben’s similar failing.) Just as I reached her at the bottom of the yellow slide, where she was catching her younger child, another friend bounced up and addressed us both.
“So! I hear someone punched Ben and you’re going to take revenge!”
In an odd way, embarrassing as this was, it helped me begin.
“Ha, ha!” I chuckled nervously. “No, not at all!” and I explained what had happened. The mother, like the sane and reasonable parent she is, simply said “Oh!” and went off to find her son.
“Oops,” she said, “was that a bad moment?”
Then my good friend Mishi–mother of Rajiv–appeared.
“Rajiv’s running around saying someone punched Ben and his Mom’s going to take revenge.”
It now became clear that the posse had done what a good posse should—raced around spreading black propaganda about its perceived enemy and hyping up a potential showdown. Where the “take revenge” part originated, I don’t know, but since Pokemon hit First Grade, the tendency to use somewhat quaint battle idioms has surfaced among the boys of Ben’s class.
Was I crazy? I asked Mishi. Should I have insisted Ben deal with this himself?
“I would have done the same,” Mishi reassured me. “I always tell Rajiv to let me know if something’s going on.”
By coincidence, I happen to be reading a book that supports Mishi’s instinct in a much wider context. In "Real Boys: Rescuing our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood", William Pollack, (a Harvard psychologist and general Man Expert) argues that boys today are subject to a Boy Code—a myth of manhood that is as strong today in post-feminist Prospect Heights as it ever was in ‘50s middle America—just rendered more confusing by political correctness. Pollack believes that boys learn early to wear a “mask” of feigned self-confidence and bravado and to handle situations alone rather than reach out to adults or friends for comfort, understanding and support.
Don’t be fooled, Pollack argues, into thinking your little Pokemon-battling, sword-wielding, “booger-touch!”-delivering person is any less in need of hugs than anyone else. And Pollack uses the phrase “love through action” to describe how boys form attachments with adults and friends by doing things together rather than by speaking.
I like Pollack’s book very much because of its delineation of the basic sweetness of boys—something I observed a lot in my son’s classroom this year, which had a staggering 17 of them, out of a total 26 students. It reminds me of one of my favorite short stories by Grace Paley, “A Subject of Childhood” about a single mother in New York navigating life with two young boys. At the end of a day spent violently wrestling and shooting toy guns, her younger son climbs into her lap declaring he wants to be a baby and stay right next to her every minute. The sun emerges suddenly from among downtown water towers and: “through the short fat fingers of my son,” Paley writes, “interred forever, like a black-and-white barred king in Alcatraz, my heart lit up in stripes.”
The age of the boy in this story is never mentioned, but that mixture of independence, rough play, excitement about guns and battle and sudden retreat into early childhood—it strikes me now—is exactly evocative of 6½.
After a few minutes passed, I went in search of Ben just to check up on him. As I headed toward the sprinklers, he whisked past me on his way to the climbing frame.
“It’s fine,” I caught as he ran. “He said sorry.”
When it came time to leave the Underhill, Ben and the boy were engaged in some complicated scheme to attach a jumprope to the monkey bars.
“We’re making a zipline!” exclaimed Ben, reluctant to go home.
Everything was forgotten: the boys were perhaps exhibiting what William Pollack describes: using “action-oriented behavior to express their connection”—or perhaps they’d just stumbled upon something that appealed to them both. In any case, for a brief moment under the monkey bars, my heart lit up in stripes.