I hear a child scream across the playground, and I feel my blood go cold. Immediately, I run toward the sound, scanning the busy play structure for a glimpse of my son. “Where is he where is he where…” goes my brain. There! I spot him. Head cocked, helmet on, straddling his bike, way over by the tennis courts, he is silently watching the players volley the ball back and forth through the chain-link fence. I stop mid-run and exhale the relief. I look over where the screaming child is now crying, his mother kneeling beside him. Noah wasn’t involved. It wasn’t Noah.
This time, it wasn’t Noah. A few weeks ago it was. Not the one hurt, but I wasn’t worried about that. I know his cry well by now, and I knew he wasn’t the wailing kid. I’m worried when I hear a child cry that it’s because of Noah. I never let my guard fully down, and even this day a few weeks ago I hadn’t, but I had turned my attention to a friend when I heard another mother yell, “No! Don’t hit back!” and saw her dash past me and right over… to Noah. Another little boy had a red nose and turned away, crying, having been warned not to retaliate. “What happened?” I asked Noah. “Nothing,” he said. I tried a different tactic. “It sounds like you hurt that little boy. Can you tell me what happened?” “I punched him in the nose,” Noah told me. Swallowing my shock, I asked him why in the world he did something so mean, and he responded, “I was being a superhero!”
God, I wanted the reason to be “because he hit me first” or “because he called my mother a whore,” but no. Noah hit another child on the playground because well, Noah doesn’t live in reality. He lives in Noah World. In Noah World, it’s perfectly acceptable to create injuries if Noah is pretending you are a “bad guy.” Pulling out finger guns, he’ll blast you into oblivion; pulling out a bow (fashioned by a piece of hollowed-out bamboo and a bungee cord), he’ll shoot you in the heart with an imaginary arrow. He’ll blow a whistle startlingly close to your ear because you’re walking past much too quickly to be considered safe. And, sinking to a new low, he will now punch you out, Batman style.
Not that he’s ever SEEN Batman, or any other superhero show, or that he even knows what a superhero IS. Lance and I, infinitely wise as parents obviously, opted to shelter him from shows and books about vigilante heroes, knowing that our hyper-imaginative little boy would decide he WAS Superman or Captain America or whoever and start punching the shit out of kids on the playground. Then Lance and I, infinitely wise as parents obviously, sent him to a multi-age preschool. My guess is some of the older boys in his class run around the playground pretending to be superheroes and being rowdy, and he thinks they’re cool. I know that’s how he learned about war toys (“Shen gave me a stick gun on the playground, Mom!! He’s my BEST FRIEND! You shoot a gun like THIS!”), because Lance and I, infinitely wise yada yada yada, never exposed him to toys that encouraged violence. You may recall, Reader, I have tried to be intentional about instilling a sense of non-violence into my boy.
Clearly, it hasn’t worked.
I forget we live in a world with other people, and that our children’s influences reach much farther than our little home with our little ideals. When I read those french parenting books about the culture of food and how to get your kids to eat well, they made so much sense to me that I drastically changed the way we approached food. No more snacks, no more eating on the run, food becomes fun and exciting, a way to reconnect with friends and family and experience new tastes and talk about those flavors and try new things, food is never a pacifier, we sit down together to eat each meal, blah blah blah… then we go to the library and all the other kids are cramming their faces with Goldfish crackers and suddenly my kids are “huuuuuungry Mama! Huuuuungry!” It’s like that with gun play, too. We all know that men are creating most of the domestic and global violence in the world. We can all read Huffington Post articles about how important it is to raise boys to be gentle. We can all talk about how we have to change rape culture so that society stops slut shaming and blaming girls for abuse and how we instead need to focus on raising non-violent BOYS and I’m sitting on this side of my computer screen screaming I AM TRYING!!! I can shelter Noah from violent shows and books all I want, can talk to him over and over again about being gentle and how hurting others is wrong, but when that’s not a priority or even an ideal for parents of kids in Noah’s world, my opinion is just a fart in the wind.
I needed to change, is the thing. Society isn’t going to change, and I can do nothing about that. So how am I going to weather this gigantic monsoon? I can’t shelter Noah from guns and swords just as I won’t be able to shelter Violet from princesses and pretty, and at some point I sort of/kind of/maybe realized that. While I never encouraged him to play with guns, I couldn’t stop him from finding a gun-shaped stick and pointing it at imaginary bad guys, but I made a half-assed rule that he not point a finger gun at people because it was rude. I non-consistently tried to get him to play guns outside only. If he excitedly showed me a stick he found in the yard that he decided was roughly shaped like a pistol (again… how did he know what a gun looked like, I found myself wondering), I gave a kind of non-committal grunt. And I found myself reminding him several times a day how killing people is bad, guns aren’t toys, “Yes, police officers CARRY guns but they try not to USE their guns” (imagine the WAH-WAH-WAH of the indistinct adult from Charlie Brown). That wasn’t working, and I knew it on some level, but it wasn’t until THIS happened that I truly had a moment of revelation.
THIS… used to be a birdhouse.
THIS guy smashed it to smithereens.
He pulverized the thing until it was literally splinters, and I was so speechless and dumbfounded that I started crying right in front of him. WHY IS MY SON THE HULK?! What frustration lies in him that he has the emotional need to reduce an innocent housing unit for robins to bits and pieces? WHERE WILL THE BIRDS LIVE NOW, NOAH!? My tears might seem irrational, as his need to DESTROY did to me, but I found myself finally admitting that I have no earthly idea what to do with a four-year-old boy. Up till now I’ve read books about positive discipline and how to help kids sleep at night and stuff, but no one prepared me for having a four-year-old boy, and I foolishly didn’t prepare myself. What kind of book would I even have looked for, anyway, How to Raise a Little Shit Without Losing Your Own Shit? What Every Parent Needs to Know When Your Son Turns Green and Tells You You Won’t Like Him When He’s Angry? I am ill-equipped to handle this phase of his life, y’all. So I did what everyone my age in my situation would have done.
I googled it.
It turns out boys experience a testosterone surge at the age of four, producing in them DOUBLE the testosterone they’ve known at ages one, two, and three. The need to destroy and wrestle and basically go completely apeshit is… normal! Normal! TOTALLY FUCKING NORMAL. (That is, if you can believe the internet.)
I called Lance and sloppy-wept into the phone while I watched through the window as Noah looked for things to smash in the backyard. “It’s not his fault,” I blubbered. “It’s not his fault and I’m always on his back about everything and I don’t know how to give him what he needs AT ALL.” All I know, Reader, is that I want to raise my little boy to be happy, and healthy, and to do good in this world. And to me good=no violence, you know? But I knew then that I was not accomplishing any of the above (well, maybe he’s still healthy) by constantly rolling my eyes and refusing to give ear to the thing he is most excited about right now. And after all, I had better get used to this. In his life he’ll be into LOTS of things I don’t particularly care for, but I still want him to talk to me about them, to always know that I love him no matter what and I’ll support him even if I don’t agree with him all the time. After I dried my eyes, I walked out to Noah and said, “Well, Noah… I guess I’ll have to get a stick-gun.”
Oh, lord, he lit up so brightly. “YEAH! I know the PERFECT gun for you, Mom! You be the bad guy, and I’LL be the good guy, ok!? Can we play??” And we did. I was the bad guy who sped too much (he wanted me to have killed someone, but I’m just easing myself into this, y’all), and he was the “pleece officer” who took me to jail (he cornered me and said “lemme just call my JAIL guys…”). Once I was in jail on the swing I asked him how I’d ever see my family again, and he said, “You can just get up.” Which was a relief.
I wrote this post because after Noah punched that kid right in the face at the playground, and we’d gathered up bikes and stray shoes as quickly as possible and I’d deposited him and poor unsuspecting Violet into the car, and I’d made profuse and humiliated apologies to the kid’s mother, I found myself wondering “what do you do when YOUR kid is the bully?” I was unnerved when I tried to illicit some remorse from him at dinner that night by telling him I couldn’t stop thinking about that poor boy at the playground and I hoped he was ok, to no response whatsoever.
Despite everything we have done, all the ways we have tried to raise Noah to be kind, be gentle, use words, check on someone who is hurt even if it was an accident, even if you didn’t do it… the truth is he is a physical, apparently testosterone-filled preschooler, and he is in what I hope is a boisterous (and slightly non-empathic) PHASE. I am no longer surprised when I hear a kid cry and look over to find Noah fleeing the scene suspiciously fast, or when an offended little girl in a tutu runs over, frowning, to say “Um, Megan? Noah HIT me!”
I am not surprised he did. I am weary that he did. I am angry that he did. I will fume and lecture him and try to get it into his thick head that he MAY NOT HIT, NO IT IS NOT A GAME, YOUR FRIENDS DON’T THINK IT’S FUN. But I don’t believe he is a bully. I know him better than anyone, and I know his HEART, even if not his hands right now, is gentle and kind. He protects his sister; he gives her secret kisses and puts his arms around her. He cries when he thinks about a world with no parents, or reads a book about a sad puppy, or when I tell him that one of his friends won’t be riding with him to class anymore because he wouldn’t stop slapping at her and pestering her. He wakes me with a kiss and looks at me with his wide brown eyes sparkling to tell me he has a surprise for me on Mother’s Day, and then he hands me a present he’s wrapped: a handmade card from school that he already gave me three days ago. He excitedly announces that he can’t wait to homeschool and he wants all his friends to come over when he does. Without anyone ever asking, he always shares a bite of cheese I give him or a cookie he steals off the counter with Violet.
I think what you do when your kid is the one making others cry is… you just keep loving him. Maybe you lose a few friends along the way, maybe HE does when other parents don’t want their kids around yours, but your arms are the ones he needs at the end of the day. I think the only way to get through to Noah is for Lance and I to nurture him in an environment without fear of rebuke or retribution, without violence, and without any conditions whatsoever on the love we show him. And you trust that he’s as good as you know him to be; you trust that he has a good and precious heart and it will be that that slowly blossoms as he grows. I could be wrong about this; I don’t know what I’m doing as I mentioned, but it’s the only thing I have to give, and, as I wave my stick-gun around over my head and try my hardest to join him in the world he’s in, I’m gonna give it everything I have.
Here’s hoping so hard that one day I’ll be standing on the playground, chatting with a friend, and I’ll hear a child cry in the distance with no fear that my son was involved. Bonus points if I glance over and see him bending down to help.