by Mike Todd
“Hey little kid, hey little kid. Want the ball?” the older boy asked, holding out the ball to my five-year-old son, Evan. I’d seen him take that ball from Evan just a moment before.
“He wouldn’t pick on my kid right in front of me, would he?” I thought, figuring that the presence of an imposing authority figure would form a magic barrier around Evan, the same barrier my wife Kara and I use to keep unsavory elements of the real world away from our kids.
Wars, diseases, most news stories, bullies, any words dirtier than “toot,” 99% of the Internet, artificial sweeteners and plastic bottles not marked as BPA-free: these things do not have our permission to penetrate the magic barrier. Soccer balls, hayrides, PBS Kids’ programming and moderate doses of ice cream can come in.
“Okay!” Evan said, taking the bait, leaving my side and running toward the older boy, who promptly sprinted off with the ball, waving it over his head and laughing at Evan, the way Lucy always pulls away the football as Charlie Brown rushes up to kick it in the “Peanuts” comic strip.
“Aw, man,” I said, looking at my wife Kara as she watched from the car, mortified.
I had hopped out to pick up Evan from the elementary school playground, where his after-school program turns the kids loose at pick-up time, like a stampede of wild horses. Usually, I have to wade into the wood chips and pry his fingers off the monkey bars to get him to leave. But on this day, he wasn’t quite so psyched to be there.
Evan came back to my side, crying, while the older kid continued waving the ball around and laughing. I looked around to see if there were any imposing authority figures around who could do something about this, but, finding none, I could only offer the rotten kid an over-the-shoulder glare and head shake.
“Wait, I need to say goodbye to my friends,” Evan said, shaking it off, running around the playground to hug several of the kids, just as he’d done with his friends at daycare before he’d come to kindergarten. We’ve had the “high fives are better than hugs sometimes” talk, but he’s not buying it.
In the car, Evan, already having forgotten about his recent tribulations, said, “My friend Emily doesn’t know what love is.”
“What do you mean?” Kara asked.
“I said I love her because she’s my friend. She said she just likes me. But friends love each other, so she’s wrong,” he replied. We tried to explain the intricacies of vocabulary as it applies to emotions and the way people express them to each other, but in the end, maybe the five-year-old had it right. If someone says she doesn’t love you, the best answer is: you’re wrong. She knows her feelings better than you do.
That night, after the kids were in bed, Kara said, “I’m worried about Evan. He’s such a sweet kid, and he’s already learning that it’s not okay for boys to express their emotions.”
“Mmm hmm,” I replied.
“It’s like boys get taught at a very early age that it’s not okay to be sensitive. Hugging his friends on the playground, telling the kids in his class that he loves them; it’s all so sweet and innocent, but pretty soon he’s going lose that innocence. He’ll learn that boys don’t communicate the way they feel like that.”
“Yeah,” I replied.
“It starts in kindergarten, then it will just go on from there. That’s how boys toughen up, I guess, but he shouldn’t have to toughen up. Boys should be encouraged to be sensitive and sweet and to share how they feel.”
“Urggh,” I agreed, grunting like a typical male.
She looked at me.
“What?” I asked.
She shook her head. Sometimes, she just doesn’t communicate that well.
You can pick on Mike Todd at firstname.lastname@example.org.