Meet the Punchers

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When I was a kid, there was a family in the neighborhood. I’ll call them the Punchers, because that was something they really enjoyed. (Besides, they might hunt me down and beat me if I identify them.)

The Punchers are directly responsible for much of my parental anxiety.

They had a kid my age – a girl, even! She just loved to hit, but she did not love reciprocity. I preferred to play with the neighborhood boys even though they weren’t my age. It was safer.

Of course, sometimes I had to play with her. Her mom would come over and threaten to punch my mom if I didn’t.

The Puncher kids went to public school, which colored my view of public school kids and public school in general.

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Ahem.

One day, I was having dinner at the Punchers, and Mrs. Puncher asked me about parochial school.*

The brother (who was about 4 years older) interrupted my answer to ask why he didn’t go to parochial school.

“You think we’d pay for your education?” she laughed, “That would be a waste of money!”

The Punchers all thought this was hilarious, and their son didn’t seem the least bit hurt.

Anyway, I thought about them recently when I heard my kids were playing musical chairs in school. I have only one experience with musical chairs, and it’s from Puncher girl’s birthday party. When the music stopped, she punched the crap out of me until I gave up my chair.

Thank goodness, those aren’t the rules of the game, even in public school. Still, my kids are lukewarm to the Darwinian nature of musical chairs.

In our school, it’s more like,

“Here’s a chair, old chum. Trust me, you need it more than I do.”

“Ha, ha! No, thank you, I insist!  I prefer to watch those other poor souls duke it out for dwindling resources.”

“Right-o! That’s what passes for entertainment nowadays…”

Monocles and spatter-dashes are big at my kids’ school.

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Maman, do pack more of those nummy fruit leathers!

And punching is so-o-o last year.

*Parochial school in the eighties had a whole ‘nother set of problems.

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Two Children’s Books on Friendship

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If you don’t have school-aged kids, you might think all kids get along; they just want to play together. Maybe it takes some common interest, but once kids “connect,” they’re cool.

If you have school-aged kids, you know there’s more drama in grade school than on all the streaming services combined.

While you can’t force kids to be “nice,” to each other, you can teach them friendship is a choice, not an obligation. The earlier you teach them, the better, in my humble opinion.

We were once in the “everyone should be friends” camp. This might have been okay when the kids were closely supervised in a three-hour preschool program (even though sh*t still happened). Once in elementary school, however, they quickly had to learn to fend for themselves. Often, there are kids who know how to be “good” around adults and sheer evil when nobody’s looking.

That’s why I recommend two books, both classics by established authors, available in most public libraries: A Bargain for Frances by Russell Hoban and Timothy Goes to School by Rosemary Wells.

A Bargain for Frances is an “easy reader” book, but it’s worth reading to your child, especially if they’re having a bout of friendship trouble. Frances’s friend, Thelma, has a history of mistreating Frances. Despite her mother’s disapproval (hello!), Frances continues to play with her until Thelma plays a mean trick. Frances finally snaps and gets her revenge with the kind of calculation I wish I had as an adult!

The two of them come to a very evolved understanding. “We can be careful [continue to distrust each other], or we can be friends,” is the proposal Frances finally makes to Thelma, who chooses to be friends. Yes, it’s idealistic, but it’s true: two people can stay friends only if both friends treat each other with respect. Frances gives Thelma an ultimatum, Thelma agrees to change.

(This actually happened with my daughter who had a “bad” friend in kindergarten. She told the girl she noticed she was only mean to her, and not to the other girls, and she didn’t want to be friends anymore. Time has passed, and they now get along with no meanness or disrespect.)

The second book I like (moving a little closer to Defcon 1), is Rosemary Wells’s Timothy Goes to School. This is for the friendship that’s not going to happen, or needs to end immediately.

Timothy is a sweet, good-natured racoon. His teacher encourages him to befriend another racoon (*cough* profiling!), Claude, who turns out to be an arrogant SOB. Claude snubs Timothy, all the while playing the rest of the class (including the teacher) like a saxophone.

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Manipulative raccoons play people like saxophones.

Timothy is miserable, feels hopeless, and wants to give up on school. He even wishes bad things would happen to Claude. Now, before you go all “terrible message!” on me, this is a very astute book. Meanness hurts!! Who doesn’t want the a-hole in traffic to get pulled over by the cop? Who doesn’t want the co-worker who hates your ideas and then presents them in the meeting as his own to suffocate in his skinny pants?

But what’s this? Timothy finds another tormented soul in his class. They get together after school over cupcakes and snark about their tormentors. The end.

Wells’s lessons aren’t very “nice,” but they are realistic. First, your child is not alone. Finding someone who is going through the same thing can be an enormous relief. Second, there are some kids who will hurt your child no matter how well he or she treats them. Those kids aren’t worth it. Why not laugh about it, and move on?

Kids are always hearing; to have a friend you’ve got to be a friend, and kids who are mean to you just need patience and understanding – they’re actually suffering!, and once we all learn to get along, we can be happy ever after. That’s bull.

Do not teach them to placate and pacify people for the honor of a conditional friendship. They can and should wait for friends who are kind, loyal, and respectful.

These books alone won’t protect your child from bad friends (unless you roll them up into tight little batons…), but they’re a subtler starting point than parental outrage and disapproval. I hope our kids are blessed with the good friends they deserve.

Happy reading!

My books are available here.