Intervening with Other People's Children

We all see children behaving in ways that pain us. What are the conditions that allow us to intervene successfully with other people's children?

Two girls who were new on our block were having a verbal battle that was growing increasingly loud, profane, and angry. I'd been outside for some reason and thought that maybe if I just stayed, as a noticing, neutral adult presence, it might help them get back under control. I was wrong. So I took a small step in their direction, asking if they wanted any help. That was equally useless; they turned me down immediately and conclusively. Then a neighbor from across the street came out on her porch and yelled that if they didn't stop, she was going to call the police (her standard response to any difficulty on the street). This certainly caught their attention, and had the effect of quieting them down for a moment or two. But the argument soon resurfaced, as bitter and unresolved as ever. Finally one of the moms came out and called her daughter in, and the street was quiet once more.

But I was left thinking. In a way my neighbor and I had covered all the standard bases. She had assumed they were bad kids and called out the big guns of adult authority. I had assumed they were good kids and offered the help of a kindly stranger. Yet neither of us had had anything more than momentary impact. There had to be a third way.

So I thought about all the fights in which I had played a useful role over the years and reflected on what they had in common--and the answer popped up immediately. Of course. How simple. In those cases I was dealing with children whom I already knew and liked. I had intervened on the basis of our relationship, knowing that they were good kinds having a hard time, and confident that they thought of me as someone who was on their side.

No wonder I had been ineffective with the girls on the street. I didn't know them. I didn't even know their names. They had no experience with me, no reason to see me as a resource. And now I could imagine a scenario that might have worked. If I had known one of them, built up a connection with her as a neighbor over the months or years, I would have been in a much stronger position. I could have said, "Hey, Nicole, could you come here for just a minute? I want to ask you something... This doesn't look like fun. What do you think is going on?" Then she could have said, "I'm just so mad..." and I could have listened, and we would have been on our way toward figuring out something more productive than yelling or calling the police.

The less on for me has to do with the centrality of relationships in solving problems. Knowing and caring out people doesn’t seem very powerful or dramatic. It’s certainly not the stuff of super-hero conflict resolution, or courtroom justice, or high-stakes international mediation. But you could argue that those forms of intervention don’t often lead to lasting solutions. Knowing and loving people and wanting the best for them, though not fancy or high tech, puts us in a much stronger position to hope them find solutions that will work in the long run.

I can’t go back and redo that conflict on my street. But there are at least two things I can do. I can remember the reality of my relationships with the children that I know, and be willing to step in with all my caring for them as well as my adult problem-solving skills. And it can make it my business to get to know the other children around me—on y block, in my congregation and other social networks, so that when things get rough, I can intervene on the basis of our relationship with each other.We