Saturday, November 24, 2007

Holding Hands

Twenty years ago, almost, computers weren't all that available, and I had need of one, so I spent some time at a friend's place getting some work done. C. He was a teacher too. Old high school buddy. He was my equal, intellectually. He was math, I was English and social studies, but we complemented each other. He sort of turned into a garbage head in his senior year, so we didn't spend as much time together. Into his twenties, I noticed a very real decline. He was no longer my match. Alas.

So I'd sit in one room, using his computer, and he was in another with some dude and the dude's wife, smoking crack. He knew not to involve me. Once I had my little son with me, and the dude and his wife were there, with their little son. None of them were smoking crack at the time. As far as I know. C knew better than to do that, around my boy. Not cool.

The little boy was named B. Same age as my son. So they played together. Well, B was a very troubled child. Of course he was. And C had the rule, no jumping on his bed. A water bed, as I recall. B, of course, being a troubled little boy and the child of crackheads, was jumping on the bed. N, my son, was scandalized. Disobedience, you know. N wasn't a little prig. He just had an honest spirit.

Well, C figured that little B had disobeyed, so needed to be punished. Indeed, boundaries have to mean something. But I supposed I had a better grip on the situation, so I handled it.

Punishment isn't about justice. It is for adults, and society, theoretically. Ha. But with kids it's not about justice, it's about modifying behavior. It's about teaching. It can't be about emotion. It has to be intelligent.

My technique in those days, with very young children, was to tell them exactly what I was going to do, and for exactly how long. I'd take their hands in mine, and just hold them still, and look into their eyes, and I'd count to thirty.

That's it.

It demonstrates authority. It's supposed to be a punishment, but it's not really a punishment at all. With B, there was some fidgeting, since he didn't like anyone else's will imposed on him, but he settled into it and ended up very calm. The eye contact, y'see. And the firm gentleness.

And then I said to poor, lost little B, "I think you are a very good boy. I don't know you well enough to love you, but I like you a lot, and I'm glad that I know you." And maybe I hugged him. And maybe he held onto me like I was something solid that he needed.

C watched, and he shook his head, and he said, "That was amazing." I smiled and nodded, because it was true. Love is amazing. Because there was a way that I loved that child. "At that age," I said, "they want to be good. They just need the chance."

I was thinking about that today, and I wanted to share it. It's what I mean by how important it is to be gentle. I don't know what ever happened to B. He'd be in his mid-twenties now. I expect he has a painful and troubled life. What chance did he have? I expect it's entirely possible that the most meaningful, the most tender and genuine experience of his childhood was being punished by me.

Isn't that sad?


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