Water Running Uphill

Older children take out what's been done to them on younger children. It's just a fact of life, right? Though there are positive interactions--older ones teaching younger ones skills, sufficiently older ones loving and caring for little siblings--when push comes to shove, older children boss, dominate, and dump on younger ones. Children who are even older have done it to them, and they turn around and do it to the ones below. It's just a natural flow of events, as inevitable as water flowing downhill. Or is it?

I've been witness recently to a phenomenon that looks very much like water running uphill. A seventeen-year-old plays with a group of younger children at their club just the way the adults do. He chases with enthusiasm, but somehow can't quite catch, or he catches and somehow they always get away. He plays hard, always thinking about what will allow the younger ones to have fun, tuning the challenges to their abilities, and they laugh and laugh and laugh.

Then a twelve-year old who's been in a club with him starts volunteering in a club for younger children. Perhaps he's a little less skilled, but he sure knows how to play, and can think about these children. In no time at all he has become a prime favorite with them.

Next, a ten-year-old asks if he can be an "ally" to an even younger group. He can't keep it up for two hours, but for twenty minutes at a time he can be seen enthusiastically reeling under a barrage of pillows thrown by delighted six and seven-year-olds. They are obviously thrilled to have this big boy in their game, and he is just as obviously thinking about what will allow them to have a good time.

All of this has stretched my belief in what is possible. After all, these children are young, and furthermore, they are boys. They are the ones we expect to see teasing, competing, putting down, taunting, trying to get on top and stay there (or, alternatively, giving up on social interactions, and opting for computers or books or engines, or whatever). And here they are, putting thoughtful, playful attention to the ones just below them.

But there's still more to come. A mom tells me about her seven-year-old (one of the pillow-throwers) noticing that a younger boy at his school is having a hard time. He invites this child to a chase game. He runs hard, but just can't manage to catch--and the little boy laughs and laughs. He tells the story proudly to his mother and says, "I was being a good ally, wasn't I?" "You certainly were," she says, with equal pride.

My mind by now is completely blown. Reality has been turned on its head. Rather than consistently giving them a hard time, the older ones are consistently giving the younger ones a hand. The younger ones experience the delight of this and are eager to do the same. No one has talked them into this. It's as if lending a hand is their natural inclination, and they've just found a context in which to do it. And, in a way, the old model still holds. The younger ones are still tremendously influenced by how the older ones behave toward them. But the content is transformed, and the implications are awesome.

Of course, this is not a random sample. All these boys (and girls) have had lots of opportunities to play with thoughtful, playful adults. They've had plenty of chance to tussle, laugh, chase, stretch, cry, snuggle, and win out themselves. But, nonetheless, it leaves me feeling profoundly hopeful. I've been given the gift of a glimpse of what is true about how children would choose to be with each other--and it's all breathtakingly possible.