One of my favorite leadership quotes comes from Colin Powell (or at least it has been attributed to him…you know how quotes work): “One of the most difficult things about leadership is to know when to do nothing, and then do it.” I recently had a parental parallel of “doing nothing”, and I wanted to tell you how it worked out. Just to warn you, it’s another New Orleans story.
So, there we were, set up in a rental property in the middle of Uptown. We were in it for only one night, actually, awaiting our “permanent” property to come available the next day. In the morning, we would be moving two blocks down the street. Carson (6) and Sydney (5) were sitting on the sidewalk outside, watching the goings-on. It was about an hour before sunset. They noticed three kids on bikes riding around a school parking lot across the street, and immediately tried to get their attention. They knew enough to not step into the street, so they looked like dogs on leashes, leaning forward over the curb, calling out to the kids: “Can we play with you? Can we play with you?” I heard them calling, and stepped out onto the gallery, which had a commanding view of the entire scene from the second floor (and also immediate access via an outdoor stairway). Bottom line, I could be next to them, if I had to be, in about five seconds or less. I noticed the kids across the street – two girls and a boy, a bit older, maybe 9 – 11 or so. They were circling on their bikes, running over an empty plastic water bottle, and seemingly having quite a time of it. The boy and one of the girls were black, and the other girl was white. No parents in sight. Well, let’s see how this works out.
I stepped back from the gallery, but kept my eyes on what was going on. I was having flashes of my city-living instincts: city kids – bad. City kids are trouble. I watched. At some point, the boy grew curious enough to ride over to the curb and stop in front of my kids. They were very excited. “Hi, I’m Dominic, what are your names?” He got off his bike, and I bit my lip just a bit, waiting for something bad to happen, and tensing for a dash down the stairs. There was some small talk about where everyone was from, and then someone said “you want to play?” They chose hide-and-seek.
Luckily, there was just enough space under the gallery/stairway, and along the sidewalk, to support a small-scale version of hide-and-seek. It equated to hiding in plain sight, but they didn’t seem to care that much. I remained out of sight, and silent. Still tense, but growing calmer. They moved to “tag.” They were having enough fun to finally pique the curiosity of the two girls who had remained across the street. They showed up at the curb to investigate. After brief introductions, they decided that running over the plastic bottle was more fun, and they headed back to the parking lot.
For my part, I kept thinking about saying something, but couldn’t come up with anything truly productive or instructive to say. “Know when to do nothing.” I did. The only thing that I “did” was to step out and catch everyone’s eye at least twice, to ensure that everyone knew I was close by. Other than that, I just let it all unfold. Eventually, my kids came running up the stairs to report that Dominic had gone home, but said he was coming right back. I just assumed he was gone. The kids returned to the sidewalk. Lo and behold, a couple of minutes later, Dominic rolled up with a Nerf football in his hands. They proceeded to play a mini game of football along the sidewalk. They were having a blast, and Dominic seemed to be quite the football guy. In later conversation, I even found out he was a Patriots fan. Bonus points. 🙂 I had to lean over the railing twice to remind the kids not to chase the ball (or the pass) into the street. Other than that, I was silent.
There was one moment when I heard the distinct “I’m hurt” cry, and headed out to the gallery to see what was up. Sydney was coming up the stairs, followed by Carson and Dominic. “What happened, Girlie?” Carson said that he had pushed her a little bit too hard, and that she had fallen on the pavement and hit her nose. Hit her nose? I remained cool and calm, and took measure of her nose. I also officially “met” Dominic, who was very gracious. Turning back to the nose, sure enough, there was a raspberry right on the tip of Syd’s nose. Everything else seemed fine, and she was already calming down (which she tends to do quickly). I cleaned up the wound, gave her a kiss, and sent them back down the stairs. There were smiles all around, and Sydney was ready to run a crossing pattern, I’m sure.
The girls visited a couple more times, but football wasn’t their thing either, I guess. As it was getting dark, I eventually went out and announced a five-minute countdown for coming in. The kids came in, very excited about their play time.
While I was trying to sum up and evaluate what had happened, I was overcome by a wave of optimism. What I had just witnessed was simply awesome, not to mention a very rare thing these days. Two kids had initiated contact with other kids, without a trace of parental guidance, influence, or intervention. They had introduced themselves, decided to play, made up their own games, and had a complete blast. Not a single word from a parent, and right in the middle of the city. Though poised to intervene, I resisted my own “worries”, and did the right thing: nothing. Not only was I proud of my kids, I was, I admit, just a little bit proud of myself, for having effectively bitten my lip, and stayed out of it.
It turned out, Dominic found us at the “new” house, a couple of days later. He became a somewhat regular visitor, and was welcomed into our house to play as well. We even had a couple of trips to the local playground together. Also, one of the girls from the first night turned out to be his sister. Her name was Seina (SAY-na). We saw her again too. They were both very nice, and even used the word “sir.” Crazy stuff! 🙂 We never met their parents, and decided that it wasn’t really that important that we did.
I am very happy that our kids had this opportunity. It doesn’t mean, of course, that I’m now going to release my kids into the city and say “see you later!” Many parents still seem to think that I’m crazy enough to do that. The kids don’t see this as anything but completely normal, and I will endeavor to keep it that way. After all, what is this blog all about anyway? Kids living the lives of kids – making friends, learning their way, and scraping their noses if they have to. 🙂 Pardon me if I see this as a minor victory in the Free Range battle.
Go love your kids!