Boys Will Be Boys: Compassion in Action
by Susan Eisman
(Originally Published in HFP Newsletter — April 2009)
“It’s a poignant example of boys being boys before they have internalized the pressure to be tough and non-feeling.“
Following four stay-at-home days, Isaiah comes to school eager to play and excited to see his friends. Deborah joins Isaiah for circle time and plans to leave shortly afterward. Anticipating the separation, Isaiah tears up, clinging to his mother. I pat Isaiah’s back while Deborah says goodbye. Isaiah cries harder as Deborah leaves. I’m glad Isaiah feels safe enough to express his sadness. I plant myself near him and attempt to get closer to console him. Isaiah needs a little space. He steps away from me and continues crying.
Isaiah’s classmate, Dylan, is moved by Isaiah’s sadness. Dylan comes over to Isaiah and wraps his arm around him. Then Dylan kisses Isaiah on the cheek. How sweet to witness such kindness and caretaking from a five year-old! I ask Isaiah if he’d like to hold Whoey the owl for comfort. Isaiah nods. Dylan is obviously moved by Isaiah’s grief, so I invite Dylan to help me further meet Isaiah’s needs. “Come on, Dylan. Let’s go get Whoey for Isaiah.” Dylan readily joins me in search of Whoey. We walk to the loft room and I scoop Whoey off of the high shelf handing him to Dylan. Dylan delivers Whoey to Isaiah’s eager arms in the next classroom.
Dylan conveys the same messages I want to convey to children in distress:
• I care about you.
• I know you are upset.
• It’s o.k. that you have these feelings.
• I will keep you company while you are feeling this way.
Most of us have the desire to help a child feel better when they are upset, and seeing a young one in pain can be hard. Sometimes in an adult’s eagerness to help a child feel better, an adult disrupts a child’s important healing process of feeling and discharging her upset. An adult may interrupt discharge by distracting a child with something positive. This might be a treat they offer or an effort to focus the child on something to anticipate. An adult uncomfortable with a child’s distress sometimes attempts to talk the child out of feeling upset at all: “You’re o.k.” “It wasn’t that bad.” I fear that this teaches a child to stuff their feelings. Instead, I have learned that a reassuring presence and loving eye-contact can do wonders in aiding a hurting child to honor the natural process of feeling bad, shedding the hurt, and returning to balance. These simple postures assures a child that she is not alone, and can aid a child to fully have, express and move through her feelings for optimal emotional health and balance.
Renowned children’s song writer Tom Hunter clearly understands the value of supporting a child’s expression of sorrow in his song “When I’m Sad, I Cry.” Hunter names his rationale for writing the song “not to get happy again but to provide company for the sadness.” This idea of keeping company for the sadness is precisely what Dylan offers Isaiah. This interaction impresses me for a number of reasons. It underscores the value of a mixed-age class in which an older child is ready to support a younger child. It’s a poignant example of boys being boys before they have internalized the pressure to be tough and non-feeling. It is safe for Isaiah to express his vulnerability and it is safe for Dylan to express nurturing.
Preschoolers often demonstrate such sweetness and sympathy for their friends. In another recent incident, Ivan tries to find a satisfying role in a complex game of fantasy adversaries. Ivan comes into some trouble and his older friend Aidan demonstrates more love and compassion. The older boys Aidan, Caden and Gabriel are well versed in this power play. They holler orders, sprint across the play yard, and use an array of tools and weapons to battle the evil forces they encounter. These three navigate their imaginary play expertly, taking turns leading, and following the newly evolving scripts. Ivan has less practice with this game and clearly wants to be playing with this older crowd. The play goes along for a while until Ivan breaks into tears. Ivan’s concerned friends, Clara and Finn, immediately seek my help, alerting me that Ivan is crying. I try to get some information from Ivan but he is too upset to share why he is crying.
Instead, I look to Ivan’s friends and ask them what they know.
Finn: “I just heard him start crying when I came down the stairs.”
Clara: “He said bad guy and then Ivan started crying.” Aidan listens from a few feet away. Clara’s declaration helps Aidan better understand the problem.
Aidan: “I think he wants to be a good guy.”
I ask Aidan to move closer to us so Aidan and Ivan can work this out together.
I relay to Ivan: “Aidan thinks you want to be a good guy. Is that right?”
Ivan nods. I think Ivan likely wants to be aligned with Aidan (and Caden and Gabriel). I expect Ivan wants to be on the “same side” as his playmates, not their pretend adversary. I believe Ivan perceives being the bad guy as outsider to these boys he loves. I think that is why Ivan is crying.
So I ask Ivan: “Do you want help getting in the game?”
Ivan nods again.
I’m about to help outline the roles that each child is playing and ask Ivan what role he wants to play.
Then Aidan cuddles up next to Ivan and pats him on the back. Aidan tells Ivan, “You’re cute.” That’s all Ivan needs. Ivan knows Aidan loves and accepts him. Ivan relaxes. His tears have stopped and he walks off beside Aidan.
As the two walk away, Aidan announces: “Miles will be the bad guy.” I listen to hear if Miles is o.k. with this proposal or if he too, will need some support, knowing there’s plenty of love and support to go around.