"Can I come play?", he said.
It was a question that I saw coming when I looked out the window to find him shuffling up the sidewalk toward our house. I bumbled and fumbled. I had been sick and then overloaded with several days of catch up work. We had been so busy the last few days that I had not yet had The Conversation with my two. And because of my fumble, I had to tell him that he could not play today. I felt a deep pang of guilt as I sent him back home with his head hanging down.
I watched as he walked back home. I watched to be sure he made it home safely. He is just 6 years old. He tried to hide his tears but I saw them.
A little over a week ago I briefly met his grandma and aunt. We waved hello once, maybe twice. They live down the way and are Michael's* caregivers while his mom works. Last week-ish he showed up at my door and asked to play. I had no idea who he was and asked him to show me where he lived.
We walked to his house and I talked with his family. They did not want to talk to me though. The overwhelming feeling that I walked away with was that they wanted him out of their hair. They did not know me, in fact, this was the very first time we had met face to face and yet they encouraged him to come to my house and ask to play. You see, on our block, I seem to have the only yard full of playing kids.
I felt uneasy when we left their house but I agreed to let him play. Because, well, he is a child and he asked me to play. To be clear, I was not uneasy about him. I was uneasy about them for reasons I won't go into here.
That day I watched closely. I intervened when Michael threatened kick my kid in the face and I talked with him about the rules of playing at my house. Curse words slipped from his mouth with a quickness and he aimed a particularly hairy insult at Plum that caused me to call it day for him. I told him he could come back to play another day but that he would need to follow the rules. He cried. I told him that I knew he was a good kid and that I knew he could do this. I told him we would try again another day.
I didn't quite know what to do and I was nervous to bring this to the attention of his family. I was nervous that he would be excessively punished. I was nervous they would lash out at me. I did not give every detail. I simply said that our kiddos needed some extra supervision when playing together and I explained the rules for playing in my yard.
She called him a name. I cringed and countered that all kids mess up and that it takes time for them to figure out how be in the world. I'm pretty sure she thought I was ridiculous.
The next day, about 30 seconds after Pants and Plum's feet hit the back deck, he returned. It was as though he was waiting at a window with binoculars for when the kids came out to play. He knocked on my door and asked to play.
And he did better. The trouble then became that my two began finding fault in everything he did. And I mean EVERTHING. They were defensive and unfriendly. They were responding to how they were treated the day before. Walls up. Shields in place. Judgment flowing freely from their eyes and a mean-ness that went beyond anything I had seen before from them. They had to come inside.
I was flummoxed.
My state of "What do I even do with this?" grew even more complex when the other neighbors chimed in.
"We don't want him here"
"Not in my yard"
"You do what you have to do, its your yard, but I don't want him here", they said.
This child who is just 6 years old is being written off by every single adult.
I tried to explain to them that at my core I believe that it takes a village. I tried to convince them that we should remember that he is a child. I explained that while I am not interested in neighborhood drama, that this CHILD should not be penalized for the perceived faults of the adults in his life. I heard "Yeah, but I don't have time for this" and "I hear you, BUT...."
I wish I could say that my impassioned plea moved their hearts.
But I failed. They held their ground and would not budge. He is not welcome to play with their children. I left the conversation feeling something awful. And I knew why. Michael was like so many kids I had worked with before. His eyes give him away.
The next day he came and asked to play but I was on my way to work.
"I promise to be good.", he said, sweetly.
"Today is not the right day", I said. "How about you come back on Tuesday to play?"
He hung his head and shuffled home.
As I sat in church on Sunday all I could think about was Michael. I was eager to get home. I was eager to have The Conversation.
When I got home, I gathered my two and called a meeting. We jumped in bed because that's where our best family meetings happen. I talked with Pants and Plum about how to be good friends. I talked with them about what to do when they are treated badly. I asked them for ideas about how to find help when needed. I talked with them about what it really means when Brandon and I and their teachers at church say that everyone is important. I introduced a new vocabulary word. They had heard it before but we had yet to dive in to what it truly meant when we say that everyone has dignity and worth.
We talked for a good long while about how it felt for them when Michael came to play and it went south. We explored times when they themselves had used harsh words or acted aggressively. We talked about second chances and if they deserve them when they mess up. And that's when Plum said, "Mama? Remember when I told you that you were the meanest mommy and I didn't want you to be my mommy anymore? I'm sorry if I hurt you."
And that brought us to forgiveness. We delighted in the idea that even though we have all wounded each other at one time or another, we are not bad. We can start over and do better. And that's when it clicked for Pants.
"I think we should invite Michael to play again. He might just need a friend, you know?", he said.
"So you want to give him a second chance?", I asked.
"Yes. He's just a kid. We kids make all the mistakes sometimes. I don't want him to be sad."
"Well then it sounds like we are in agreement that we should invite him back to play. Plum? What do you think?", I said.
"I wonder if he is sad, mama.", she said with tears in her eyes.
"How about we try again? How about we invite Michael over and just try again?"
They nodded enthusiastically. It was decided.
I restrained my tendency to talk right through the moment. My wordiness has ruined perfectly clear conversation endings before. So I closed my mouth, hugged my kids and we jumped out of the meeting bed. Its always kind of awesome when we can leave the meeting unanimous. Feels good.
What I wanted to say to them at the time was that we adults make way more mistakes than kids do and that I was humbled to see that forgiveness from them comes with so many less steps than it does for me. Where along the way did I add those steps?
My kids help me to remove those extra steps. And they remind me that my job-to teach them to lead with love- is sticking. Even if I am not be able to convince the adults on my street. You can't win them all.
But the adults were right about one thing. It is my yard. It is my call. And here at The Pants Ranch we give second chances. I'm more than interested to see how this unfolds with them- if they will ever come around.
It's Tuesday and I'm sitting here typing away while three little ones play together. A few hours ago we sat together in a circle on the deck and agreed to the rules. We acknowledged what happened. Apologies were given and grace was granted. All by some kids and for some kids.
I'm not delusional that this will fix all. But I am confident that we are going in the right direction. And that's something, isn't it?
*name has been changed