WHAT A VILLAGE CAN DO
Is it ever appropriate to step into another family’s problems without being asked? If it’s heartfelt, I believe it is appropriate.
I witnessed a scene recently on my daily aerobics walk through our small town which brought back more memories than I was prepared for so early in the morning. I sprinted past a tow-headed boy who was giving his mother a rough time. He was only three or so, but he had already developed an arsenal of hurtful words.
“You’re mean!” the boy shrieked. “I don’t like you anymore!”
They stood outside the local barber shop; the boy stomped and flailed and tried to pull away while his mother pleaded with him to go in for a haircut. To any other passers-by, the moment might have seemed as innocent as if it had been borrowed from Norman Rockwell’s sketchbook, but to me—to me, the boy’s words sounded a warning.
I remembered a little boy—my own—who was much like this one, who also told me at three years old that he “didn’t like me.” It was all he could muster as a three-year-old, but as he matured, he strengthened his vocabulary of disrespect. “You’re disgusting. You never do anything for me. I hate you.”
It’s easy – oh, so easy – for a child’s dislike to turn into a teenager’s hatred, and it can’t always be reversed. My son’s life ended when he was twenty-one in a car accident. He had been drinking; his addiction to alcohol and pot and my objections to them had been a catalyst for many harsh words hurled at me when my son was alive. Now, there would be no more words of any kind to me, not even words of reconciliation.
If only someone had intervened, anyone. My husband, a family member, even some random person on the street might have made the difference.
Should I intervene now? I had no right. Or did I? I recalled a passage from Hillary Clinton’s book, It Takes a Village. “Children are not rugged individualists,” Clinton wrote. “They depend on the adults they know and thousands more who make decisions every day that affect their well-being.”
I was one “of the thousands” that Clinton wrote about that morning; I was in a position to affect one small child’s well-being. So, I did.
“Moms are meant to be respected,” I said, addressing the boy first. He had no idea what I was talking about, but I had stopped his diatribe.
Next, I turned to the boy’s father who, like my son’s father, didn’t realize the significance of what his wife was going through. He was letting her handle the confrontation all alone.
“Tell him to respect his mom every day of his life from now on,” I began. I went on to relay—briefly—my son’s story. Then, I crouched down and pretended to tie a shoelace. I was, quite frankly, trying to duck the slap I thought was sure to come. I’d just broken one of the cardinal rules of our privatized culture—the one that reserves correction for immediate family members and caregivers. But is that rule there to silence all those in the village who care? Or, is it meant to protect us against those who have been turned into moralistic microphones by politicians and ministers? Then, of course, society’s rule should apply.
But when it is right to correct, and the correction is not made, the entire village suffers.
I waited for my slap from the little boy’s father. Even if he couldn’t reach me crouched on the sidewalk, I knew I’d see the slap in his eyes. But, no slap of any kind came.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice liquid with warmth. I stole a glance at the woman. Her face showed an emotion I recognized—one which I had wanted to experience all those years ago but never did. Relief.
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