I stop Monroe after he throws the first punch at his six-year-old brother. It was then -- in the next few moments as I sought to contain the struggling, furious boy -- that I learned so much.
I had heard it all in the background as I was writing a post about saving money. I was writing about the emotional barriers we need to put up to not saving and Everett was telling his brothers they could play the Wii, but that first, they must wash their hands. The screaming -- along with the charging up the stairs and the sounds of scuffles and the reactionary screaming -- came right after.
As with any screaming, punching, hurting fight between my boys, my first reaction was protective and senseless rage. My blood turns to high heat and I can only think, blindly, back-of-my-throat hoarsely, NO!!! and this is what comes out of me, and I want them to just hear the word and the rage and stop. Docile. Lamb-like. Baaaa-aaaa.
They do not. I must charge up the stairs, too, a mare or a herd of them, cutting off the predator (who is what, who? My four-year-old or my six-year-old? A nameless cloud of anger? The world and all its just conviction?). I enter the bathroom to more screaming, and the end of a boxer-style punch to the face. Truman is crying.
As I grab Monroe to restrain and comfort him at once, I know already what the fight has been about: Monroe wanted to wash his hands downstairs in the kitchen. Truman, upstairs in the bathroom. The kitchen was closer, and quicker; the bathroom, easier for Truman. He is the sort of boy who is comforted and in fact can only survive with routines that do not change. Handwashing with a bar of soap in the bathroom, where he does not have to climb up or adjust a handle to get the correct chill of cold, is his way.
I take a deep breath. There are always deep breaths, this is how I teach and how I learn. All one: into my belly, shoulders out; out -- out -- out -- loose my jaw, tension flows from my shoulders. I do as well as I can, and I am telling Monroe, "take a deep breath, take a deep breath," and I am holding him to keep from running at his brother and I am trying to calm my own fool self. He is still talking and crying at once and kicking and I realize what to say. I need to find him in this rage.
"What do you want?" I ask. "I want Truman..." and he gasps, and swallows, "to wash his HANDS..."
"But why?" I ask. "Why are you washing hands?"
"So we can PLAY with the WIIIIIII!" More sobbing, his body heaving in sadness.
"But you could have washed your hands downstairs and let Truman wash his hands up here," I say. "You could have both done it in different places and you would have already been playing. But: you thought it would be faster to wash your hands downstairs, right?"
A tearful nod.
"Was this fast?" I ask. "To fight and cry and punch and scream? Are your hands washed yet?" He shakes his head. No.
"What you need to focus on," I say, "is the goal. Getting your hands clean. Not the way you do it!"
We wash his hands and I tell the story again to him, the problem and the moral, and I tell it to Everett and to Truman. And it does not work right away but when he and Truman scream and fight a few days later over which door to take to get into the house after school, he is in misery, in hysterics, and I tell the story again as I drag him up the side stairs, wet and heaving, and when we come into the house even another day later he takes a deep breath. Into his belly, shoulders out; and then out-out-out, shoulders falling.
"Truman, next time, you can go in the side door and I can go in the front door!" he says, magnanimous, beneficent, a thousand years' wise, at home in the world.
I do not contain my joy, but let it open my shoulders and thrust out my belly, let it expand the space between my spinal bones, throw wide my jaw and brighten my eyes, let it exercise me, I tell the story again.