"Young man, we don't have have fun by making little girls cry." I made my voice firm as I said this to the nine-year-old boy at the fountain, but my words still sounded hollow. To some boys, making little girls cry is the most fun ever, and we both knew it. Crying girls make such interesting noises! They give you so much attention! You are the biggest person in a little girl's world when you are making her cry!
This boy had staked his claim at the deepest part of the fountain, the only place where kids could sit and submerge their feet, and he was waiting for other children to approach the coveted spot so he could fling water in their faces. They would back off crying when the water hit their eyes, but the siren song of the best spot at the fountain kept bringing them back. All the kids hovered just out of his reach, waiting for him to leave so they could dip their feet. He wasn't going anywhere.
There's been a lot of talk online about bullies lately, and the drift of the conversation troubles me. There is a static quality to the bullies of parental complaints, as though that third-grader with the sneer is a monster of unchangeable nature.
And the bullies are always, always someone else's kid.
This boy at the fountain was no bully. When he made eye contact with me, he recognized an authority figure. It leached the fun out of the experience for him. He did not backtalk, and he stopped splashing. He sat in the water for another minute, and then ran off to play where there would be no inconvenient adults to limit him.
It does not always go this way. Sometimes there are real bullies, even as children. The last time I corrected someone else's child at this park - a violent child with cold eyes - he kicked me for it.
"No tolerance" policies against bullying will always target boys more than girls. The boy at the fountain who only needed correction will be the object of such a policy, while the truly vicious girl who sadistically wounds with her eyes and words will slip by. Conversations about bullies seem to focus on solutions that segregate and ostracize, cutting off the misbehaving kids from others. What rarely gets owned in these conversations is the parent's fear and unwillingness to risk intervening in the life of a child. After all, his parents could be anyone. They could hate you. They could threaten you. They could sue you.
I don't have a solution to the human heart. People hurt each other. Minimizing that hurt is not the job of a single authority; it's the vocation of each of us who live in community. I look out for you and you look out for me. We correct each other's children. We protect each other's children. And we train our kids to care about the smallest and the weakest, even if it takes a lifetime to make the lesson sink in. My kids, and any kids who play with my kids, will get the kindness lecture. I watch out for spite, and I pounce on it.
Another day, another sunny afternoon at the park. I was waiting for my kids at the park and a group of young men walked by. There were eight of them, walking in pairs, and they had the trim waists and lean muscles of an athletic team. They were catcalling two young women on the street, shouting vulgarities while the women walked faster. The two groups turned the corner, past where I could see them, and the young men began to run. I heard a woman scream. The homeless men on the corner, who could see where I couldn't, stood up straight and threatening and looked toward the scream. No one hates teenage thugs more than homeless men. The men stood, poised to run, but did not run. I hope it means they did not need to.
I found my children and went that way. The young men and the women were gone from the bus stop, and the only sign anyone had been there was the city's cast-iron trash can overturned on the sidewalk. I tried to to right it, but it was too heavy for me to lift by myself.
My daughters have a friend they love to play with. This little girl lost her father recently. He was a cab driver, and two men shot him in a robbery. They thought he must have money. It was the start of his shift, and he probably only had twenty dollars. I don't have any words for her loss. Devastation and heartbreak silence me. But I wish we were something different. I wish we were a town and a country where we all looked out for each other, and these things couldn't happen. I wish peace were alive in every heart. I wish I could make it alright for her.
But I correct that kid at the park. I intervene when I see heartlessness in my own kids. I walk through my neighborhood and my city, and in every step I say, This is MY home. Mine. This place belongs to me and I will not be afraid. This is a home for people who build, not those who tear down. Goodness lasts, even when life doesn't. Watch this community grow in peace. See what happens when the people of God are fearless.