When I dropped The Who off at school and was telling the secretary (with The Who’s permission) about the tail end of this morning’s play date, she held up all the fingers on one hand and just one on the other and said, “They’re six.” And that’s the moment when I realized that perhaps I was expecting too much.

This play date started off easy breezy. One kid pulled out a game, the other busied himself with trucks, and The Who started building with MagnaTiles. After a few minutes, they all started playing together. I was actually a little self-congratulatory as I sat at the table, sorting the dried out markers from the good ones. This is the best play date they have had in a long time, I said to myself. They were negotiating things, making decisions together, and enjoying one another. And then — at some point, The Who said something in a tone of voice that I read as unkind. Maybe a little impatient. Maybe annoyed. It sounded, in fact, a lot like my own impatient, annoyed voice. I didn’t comment. I had made a decision during his last play date that I would try not to intervene as much as possible so that he could form his own relationships with his friends. If kids ended up not wanting to hang out with him because he was rude to them, then that was the natural consequence. Plus, most of his friends aren’t afraid to speak up on their own behalf.

A moment later, The Who said something unkind again — something very not becoming of a host. Again, I held my tongue. But, the third time, I overheard his friend say, “Well, the next time my mom asks me if I want to come here, I’m going to say no.”

The Who, I think starting to feel the burn of his poor choices, said, “Why won’t you come back? It won’t be fun for you if you don’t come back.”

They went back and forth a little, with the friend insisting that he’d rather go to his grandmother’s house than have to come here and be subjected to this play date tyranny and The Who insisting that it would be different the next time, so he might as well come here to play. This time, I decided to say something and I called The Who upstairs.

“You’re the host,” I reminded him in a quiet voice. “If one of your friends that you invited over is not having a good time, it’s your job to find out how you can help him have more fun.” The Who tried to defend himself by insisting that he couldn’t stop playing Legos to see what his friend would rather do. And then by trying to convince me that his friend was being rude by interrupting him. But, I had heard the exchange and it hadn’t gone down like that. I didn’t engage in his argument. “It’s your job as the host to stop what it is you are doing and kindly try to see what would make it more fun for your guest.” I insisted that he go do that and, to his credit, he did. The annoyance in his voice was ever-so-slight that probably only I heard it.

There were several minutes after that of parallel playing at the Lego table and then I started to count down to clean-up time. The Who jumped into bossy mode again, insisting that his friends clean up in a certain way and within a certain time frame. I warned him again about his tone, this time not so privately. In fact, not privately at all. “Speak. Kindly. To. Your. Friends,” I said. Full voice.

As the two friends continued clean-up and The Who ate his lunch, there were a few more snotty exchanges, after which I nearly completely lost my shit. Fortunately, I was able to stop myself before saying, “Stop acting like such a dick!” which is what actually came into my head. I was pissed. I was pissed that he was so clearly missing the message I thought I had been so clearly conveying all morning (and many times before this day; the Golden Rule is something we talk about often.) And I was pissed that I was somehow totally fucking up as a parent. How is it that this kid, who so obviously has the capacity to empathize and does so all the time, couldn’t stop himself from speaking so rudely and being so selfish? What was I doing wrong?

Then he started crying. “They got more play time than I did!” (It’s true. He had missed out on a few minutes earlier on because I had sent him to his bedroom after he hit his friend on the head with the waggly end of a long Hot Wheels track.  “It’s not fair,” he complained. “They got more play time!” I contradicted him. “It’s completely fair. You made a choice to behave in a way that ended in a time out and you lost that time. That’s what happens when you make those choices.” He kept crying. Meanwhile, it was past the time we should have left for school and although he was physically ready, he was in no way emotionally ready. I sat with him for a minute. Took a deep breath. Held him. Let him fall apart on my lap. Kissed his head and said, “You are a very kind boy. You make kind and sweet choices all the time. I hear you talk kindly all the time.” And I asked him what he was feeling that was making him speak the way he was speaking.

I don’t know how to better impress the importance of kindness onto him, except to be more kind myself. Model more patience and more empathy myself. (While I’m not perfect, I do think I do a pretty damn good job of this already.) And I’m torn between making him toe a hard line sometimes and really trying to pinpoint the feelings that are the catalysts for his behavior. I mean, just because you’re hurt or frustrated doesn’t mean you can just act like an asshole. This is Human Interaction 101, right?

But, as the school secretary reminded me, they’re six. He’s six. I probably can’t expect him to have mastered a life skill that some adults are still working on (his parents, to name two.) So, while he continues to work on kindness, I’ll continue to work on remembering that even though he reads like an 8-year-old, does math like a second-grader, and has a more vast vocabulary than some of my students, he is still only six. All the fingers on one hand and just one on the other.


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