I picked up my 3-and-a-half-year old son Eddie from daycare and as we left the building, he and a classmate began running around and around a circular cement path in front of the school. The other boy was in the lead and as my son caught up to him, he grabbed the boy by the shirt and pushed him to the ground, prompting the boy to cry.
I ran over to them and while rubbing the boy's arm with one hand, I held Eddie's hand with the other and said, "Look at your friend. He's hurt. I don't think you want to hurt your friend. But when you push people they can get hurt. And now he's crying. I don't think you meant to make him cry, right?" I was trying to walk a fine line, showing Eddie the consequences of his actions while trying not to rub his face in it and make him feel like he's evil.
"Sorry," my son said, barely audible and with not a shred of remorse.
It wasn't the first time he'd flung another child to the ground. About a year ago, he started becoming more physical with other boys. They'll be playing tag -- my son loves the chase -- and everyone will be laughing until Eddie latches on to another child's shirt or jacket and tries to pull him down. It's like a wrestling move. When he's playing with older kids, they brush it off like a horse swatting a fly, but children his own age don't like it, particularly if they're thrown to the ground. And I'm yet to see a kid who is my son's match. It's not that he's excessively strong. It's that he's determined, and he uses his body weight to bring the other child down.
It's gotten so that when he plays with other children, I'm like an overzealous hall monitor, standing on the sidelines yelling, "Eddie, gentle!" "Eddie, no," "Edwin, stop," at even the most minor infractions. He'll look at me and stop whatever he was doing, but a minute later, his arms are extended out in front of him again, like Lurch, trying to grab another boy by his clothing.
At his birthday party, he pulled on one kid, who is actually a friend, so many times, I thought the boy's mother wasn't going to let Eddie play with her child anymore. In fact that's the worst part about it: I fear my son is going to be disenfranchised, cast out, sidelined as a bully.
A few days later, we had a double play date with Eddie's classmate and a boy named Jack, one of the classmate's friends. Jack, like Eddie, was a grabby kid, too, though Jack is big for his age so when he pushes or shoves another child, he can do some damage. And like me, Jack's mother was constantly monitoring him for fear he would hurt another child.
Worried about Eddie's behavior, I began reading books on the topic, consulting friends, even posting messages on Facebook seeking advice. Most people said the same thing: the grabby behavior must end. "Children should keep their hands to themselves," one woman said. "Tell him he needs to use his words, not his hands," said another.
But I stumbled upon one doctor who wrote a book that said while aggression must be kept in check, it's equally important for young boys to develop bonds, and calling a child out publicly again and again will make him feel like a pariah and make it harder for him to forge those self-esteem-building relationships. Better to find him like-minded companions who will allow him to play the way he wants to play without constantly feeling shamed.
A few weeks later, we attended Eddie's classmate's birthday party, at House of Bounce. Eddie, his classmate, and Jack were running around inside one of the inflatable houses, throwing balls and chasing each other as I stood outside it yelling at Eddie through the netting every time he grabbed someone. "Edwin. Stop it!" "Eddie, if you do that again, you're getting a time out." The last thing I wanted was for the birthday boy to be crying at his own party.
Jack's mother was actually inside the cage, bouncing up and down as the boys ran around her. Every now and again, she would pry her son off another child, usually mine, because no matter how many balls were available, Eddie and Jack always seemed to want the same one.
Another parent walked over and stood next to me.
"I like that kid," he said, pointing to Eddie. "He's feisty."
"That's my son," I said.
"He reminds me of my son," the man said, pointing to Jack.
I felt a moment of relief. I was used to feeling like a pariah at every outing because of my son's aggressive behavior, and here was someone commending it. It was as if my pink-toed son and I had been living on one side of an island where everyone had blue toes, and while out walking one day, I found another side of the island where all the pink-toed people lived.
In the months that followed, every time we went out with Eddie's classmate, I would stand over my son to make sure he didn't hurt the boy, but when the classmate's friend, Jack, would join us, I could let down my guard -- not because Jack would buffer Eddie's advances but because he was even more aggressive. He made Eddie look almost normal.
This week, Jack's mother and I arranged to have a play date on our own. We went to a playground, and for much of the afternoon, the two boys got along well. They played with action figures, ate lunch, and ran around the playground, though Jack kept wanting Eddie to chase him, and Eddie kept wanting to go back to the picnic table to play with Jack's figurines. When Jack became more insistent about playing a game of chase, his mother tried to divert his attention by taking him for a walk in the empty tennis courts next to the playground. Eddie wanted to go, too, so he and I joined them.
The boys started to chase each other around the net on one of the courts, though Jack was bigger and faster and caught Eddie easily every time. And every time he did, the two boys would begin to skirmish, circling each other without making contact but you could feel that at any moment, they would.
"Okay, Eddie, go run and let Jack chase you," I'd say each time, trying to break it up.
After intervening a number of times, Jack's mother and I decided to just let the boys go for a moment, to do as they wished, like a person who keeps a dog that's always pulling them on a tight leash, for fear they will bolt, but one day let's the dog go to see what will happen. Our sons weren't in danger. We were right there should anything happen. And so it was that Jack's mother and I found ourselves standing in the middle of a tennis court, watching our boys spar, bobbing and weaving like two boxers in a ring. Now and again, Eddie would run toward Jack with his elbow out like a weapon, yelling, "Huya!" and Jack would do this karate move, twisting his body around while kicking his leg out behind him, like Bruce Lee.
To stand there watching the two of them felt odd, like we were watching gladiators or a cock fight. It felt wrong. But every time I wanted to stop them, I would look at my son's face, and he seemed all right. He wasn't scared or mad or hurt -- though a couple of times, when the two actually made contact, Jack pushed Eddie to the ground, and I interceded.
"You okay, pal?" I would ask, helping him up.
"Yeah," he'd say, and get up and run at Jack again.
After a minute or two, Jack's mother and I decided it was time to go. It had been a long afternoon and best to end it before someone ended up in tears.
As we drove home, I asked my son, "Did you have fun with Jack?"
"No," he said.
I looked at him in the rear view mirror. He was sitting quietly in his car seat, deep in thought. Of course he was, I thought. He had just faced an opponent larger and stronger than he is, and his own mother let it happen. I stood there watching it like it was a spectator sport. He now knows that if he ever needs me, I will not be there for him. And he'll be right. I felt regret.
As he looked at me in the rear view mirror, I braced myself. "Do I have to take a nap when we get home?" he asked.
"Yes, you do," I said, and exhaled, having dodged yet another imaginary bullet.