“Hi. Are you [The Boy]‘s dad?”
No phone call that starts with these words can ever be a good thing. The best one can hope for with such a start is neutral. Good? Right out.
Today’s call was definitely not neutral.
“[The Boy] got in a fight and knocked out another boy’s tooth. We’re down at [nearby restaurant]; can you come get him?”
Oh yes. I most definitely can come and get him.
You can tell summer is winding down. The days are getting shorter, our haphazard container garden on the back deck is frantically trying to ripen with the occasional hot day, spiders cover every tree, the boaters on Lake Union try to squeeze in as many day trips as they can… and The Boy is definitely ready to go back to school. Has been for probably about a week. Late summer, Seattle style with a chez static twist.
This week he’s been at kayak camp. He was in it for a couple of weeks last year and loved it, so we figured it was a pretty safe bet again this year. The first week (the first week of vacation, actually) went really well. This week? Eh. Not so much. Yesterday he told us that another kid was picking on him, and asked me if he had to go back today… Not the most auspicious sign, but we told him that conflicts were part of life, dealing with it by not dealing with it wasn’t an option, it was only one more day, so go ahead and have fun and enjoy it. Besides, Friday is when the group paddles to [local restaurant], and you enjoyed that last time, right?
Yeah. That worked real well.
When I got to the restaurant, a knot of the counselors were talking…
“I don’t know, I didn’t see…”
“Well, didn’t you…”
“Wait, there he is, there he is.” (pointing towards me)
What I was able to get from The Boy was that there had been some name-calling, someone had thrown a life jacket at him, and then punches were thrown, whereupon conservation of energy dictated that a tooth be removed from the jaw of someone other than The Boy. From a flustered counselor, I got that The Boy’s been having a lot of problems this week, it’s been getting worse, and this was so unexpected, blah blah blah.
Well, if it’s been escalating, I wish we’d been told before it came to this, I said. We could have intervened.
Oh, not with these kids. It was happening with other ones. Huff. Bluster. Couldn’t see it coming. Blah blah blah.
Oh. Okay. I was able to find out that it was a baby tooth, fortunately. From a less flustered counselor, I got that as far as they could tell it was normal kid friction and frustration, and that this blew up without any warning signs. Okay, I can almost believe that. It still pisses me off that they let it get to that, but I can still see it.
The Boy’s lunch arrived at that point, so I took him off to the side and let him finish it. I couldn’t get much coherent info out of him, but informed him that there were going to be consequences once we got this all sorted out. I brought him home, had him change out of his wetsuit, and brought him down to the office so I could salvage some of my afternoon.
This evening, we finally got a coherent story. The first child, who we’ll call Instigator, was calling The Boy names. The Boy ignored him, at which point Instigator told another boy, who we’ll call Chump, to throw Chump’s lifejacket at The Boy. Chump, chump-like, complied. The Boy threw it back at Chump, who then rushed in for some close-quarter action. Other kids egged on the fight, and The Boy must have been holding his own, because Instigator jumped in at this point, and lost a tooth for his troubles. It was only at this point that counselors noticed what was going on and broke the fight up.
I’m inclined to believe The Boy – once he knows he’s in trouble, and he’s accepted that the punishment is going to be fair, he’s always been very honest about things, including stuff that he’s started or escalated. In this case, he carefully recounted points at which he could have backed out and gotten adult help (or at least quasi-adult help) to stop things; evidently, there were a couple of pauses in the fight; Instigator jumped in during one such lull. It seems that the counselors were too occupied getting the orders placed, handing off food, and herding kids out of the kayaks and in from the dock to the picnic area to catch what was going on before Lord of the Flies: Lake Union erupted; given what I saw (and overheard) when I arrived, I can believe that. But what makes it really believable to me was how indignant The Boy was that Instigator lied when the counselors stepped in. “He said I called him a vitch, and I didn’t! I don’t even know what that word means!”
Well. That’s interesting.
‘Bitch’ isn’t even remotely a standard term in our household, and on those occasions where it slips out, it’s always in a “Quit’ch’er bitchin’” context, never as a direct insult. So I’m finding it hard to get too worked up about a shit-stirring 8-year-old who thinks ‘bitch’ is a.) an acceptable insult of first resort and b.) an acceptable excuse for physical brawling.
Instigator, Chump, and The Boy all got sent home. The Boy is going to lose all his Legos for a week; we were also going to have him write something like “Fighting doesn’t solve anything” fifty times, but after hearing the full circumstances, well… for varying values of solve, it probably did solve something in this case; sometimes violence only understands violence. Not every problem merits the application of brute force, but sometimes… well… there you go. Tear up my application to join the Society of Friends, willya?
I don’t know what consequences Instigator will face at home, but part of me hopes that he’s learned that actions have consequences beyond those that might be inflicted by authority figures: sometimes when you stir shit – or get others to do it for you – you fall in, even when it seems like a sure thing.
Honestly, I doubt it; his style seems too practiced, too well-entrenched for this to have any immediate deterrent effect. I can only hope that whenever his tongue explores that gap between his teeth, he feels a little anxiety, a little doubt about trying to pull this shit again as he remembers that it actually cost him something physical, something tangible. Ultimately he may be able to rationalize it – and he probably will – but maybe, just maybe, there will be a tiny voice that whispers to him “are you sure about this? that last one didn’t look so tough, either…”
I can live in hope. What else can a parent do?