Every afternoon I go to pick our middle son Caleb up from his primary school in Aberdeen. It's just around the corner from our house, which makes it much easier all the many days I need to take his brother and sister along with me for the journey. Most days that it's not raining or blowing a gale, Caleb asks to stay and play with his friends. I usually try to say yes, and then it becomes a game of What will end the play session first...friends go home or mom freezes?? Usually the latter!
The other day Agnes was at nursery and Adam was content, so I just sat on the benches, trying not to freeze, and watched the boys play. They run around in circles, playing this game or that one--mainly tig-and-tag. I haven't quite figured out if they just need to burn off their energy, need to assert some position in the "wolf-pack" (as they are known), or need to establish some level of friendship that the classroom has sublimated for the previous six hours. Probably they don't know either. Probably all three at once.
What I do know, having watched them for a while now, is that there is a lot of work to be done in childhood, and during this time that the boys are playing they are also most certainly working. Let me illustrate a bit more clearly.
Some days it's entirely laughter that I hear, happy noises from children content to run about and be free. The games go off without incident, nobody trips and runs to mother or father with a sniffly nose. It's simple, but still not easy. The kids are running non-stop. I see jackets flung off, faces become red and sweaty, and now and again one will stop and pause, hands on knees, to catch their breath. Physical work, good and pure. But another level, they are developing skills of what I call, for lack of a better word, layering. They are physically moving with a game, whilst keeping an eye out for the others and planning strategies, sometimes in a group, sometimes on their own. They are watching to see who is doing what, and beginning to really suss out what sort of behaviours will move them up a level on the playing field. Like birds in flight, they seem to sense when to move together and when to separate, and this takes a lot of energy and an awareness of self and others that is emerging.
But then, when conflict strikes, they are learning how to negotiate, how to lead and follow, how to speak to others, how to resolve the conflict (for most of the time parents are involved in their own conversations) and most importantly...how to listen. I've seen some major arguments erupt, and one or two of the kids step in to "manage" it. I've seen kids run off so angry they can't speak anymore, and the others coming together to figure out what to do. When an interaction or game goes so bad that two or more have fallen out, the others are left to decide how to react, and you can see on their faces the intense work of processing that is taking place. Will I take sides? Will I find a new game? Will I ask to go home? (maybe not...) Well then, will I help sort it out?
Every day Caleb comes home and tells of arguments, fall-outs, and kids that are calling names. Sometimes he is on the receiving end, and sometimes he is part of the team doing the dirty work. He is learning how it all feels, what sort of consequences come and how to deal with them. He is learning to stand on his own feet and make decisions--some good, some not so good--and most of all to learn that knowing why he made them is just as important if not more.
But I think what is most difficult, and potentially what throws some children off the rails for good, is that their safe spaces are changing and they have to learn how to realign themselves in this adult world to which they are stepping ever closer. I can no longer keep Caleb safe at all times, or control most aspects of his world, or solve his problems. He came running to me today with tears at an injustice done to him by his best friend, which was of course provoked by the injustice he first did to said friend. What could I do? A bit of comfort and comfort for the other boy who then came over. Some words that I hoped were calm and encouraging, and a joke about everyone "smelling the barn" and being tired and cranky at the end of the week. Nothing more, and they were friends again. But that was not my doing, it was their decision, weighed up in milliseconds about how they wanted to end their week and treat their friendship, about what matters and the importance of forgiveness that they have heard over and over again.
Processing, processing. If we think that it's only we adults who do the enormous work of processing difficult issues and straining our minds on so many different levels at once we are kidding ourselves. If, in turn, kids act "like kids" sometimes, I can see why: everyone needs a break now and again in their work day.