The Art of Diplomacy As Learned From One Small Boy

THE adoption of my first and only child two years ago made me an instant observer of children. Where previously I took little interest in their behavior, I suddenly found myself awash in impressions, fascinated by their interactions with one another.

My son was 7 at the time, so it was the society of little boys that captured my attention. There was something otherworldly about them. Whenever I brought my son to the municipal swimming pool or the playground, his friends would rush up to him, animated with excitement, uttering a language that had no meaning for me. They would touch each other in almost a ritual of species recognition, like ants brushing antennae to confirm the existence of a conspecific. Then they would go off together, and I would be relegated to a spot in the shade, to read a book until summoned by my son to take him home.

I didn't mind being vaguely irrelevant when my son's friends were around. Despite his young age, I felt that, at some level, he was in good hands. In spite of the occasional bouts of teasing and the breaking into factions, there was always a shared sense among them that they were all in this together. They took care of one another.

I soon learned that there were codes in the little-boy world that I had a habit of breaking with all the frequency of bad weather in Maine. The most grievous of these infractions was my unwillingness to assign blame when dissension flared in the ranks.

Recently, my son, Alyosha, now 10, had two friends over. One of the boys (I'll call him Jarrett) had a reputation for roughness. It wasn't that he meant to hurt anybody; it was just that people tended to get hurt when he was involved in the play. I had warned Alyosha about this on each previous occasion where his contact with Jarrett had left him wailing.

''You can still have Jarrett over,'' I had advised, not wanting to exclude the boy from my son's circle of friends, ''but try to think of quiet games to play with him.''

Which brings me to another attribute of little boys. They forgive with an alacrity that should shame the presidents of Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. ''I know he hurt me before,'' acknowledged Alyosha, ''but he won't do it again.''

The second boy who came over that day was a bosom buddy of my son's named Brian. In contrast to Jarrett, Brian had a reputation for sensitivity and compassion. When Brian and Jarrett arrived, Alyosha rushed out to greet them. True to form, all three spoke their mysterious language at the same time, all the while touching each other on the arm and jostling in a tight circle of acquaintanceship. I went into the kitchen to do the dishes, where I belonged.

The play commenced as the boys tossed a football around. Perhaps, I considered, it will go smoothly this time. Perhaps, I reasoned charitably, Jarrett had mended his ways.

Fifteen minutes later, Brian was in the house. ''Alyosha's crying,'' he said.

I went outside and found my son holding his arm, tears streaming down his cheeks. Jarrett was standing on the sidelines, observing him with concern but not uttering a word.

''Jarrett hurt me,'' Alyosha moaned.

''No, I didn't,'' Jarrett said. ''We were just playing. It was an accident.''

Here's where I broke the code. I placed my hand on my son's shoulder and told him, against my better judgment, ''I'm sure he didn't mean it.''

Alyosha pulled away from me, told me I didn't love him, and announced that he was going to live with another family. The two other boys and I watched as my son began his long march down the street.

Brian's face was heavy with concern. ''Do you really think he'll go?'' he asked.

''I think he needs to cool off,'' I said.

Jarrett bid his goodbyes and set out for home. It was time for Brian to go as well, so I put him in the pickup and headed for his house. But he wouldn't relinquish his preoccupation with my son's delicate condition. ''I'm worried about Alyosha,'' he said.

We caught up with my son. I opened my window and called out to him. He ignored me and walked on. ''He needs to be alone for a while,'' I told Brian.

But my son's friend had other ideas. ''Let me talk to him,'' he said.

Brian invited Alyosha into the truck. ''Come on,'' he said. ''You can sit back here with me.''

Alyosha reluctantly complied, making a point of averting his face from me as he got into the back seat. As I drove on, I was privy to the most remarkable conversation I have ever heard between two 10-year-olds.

''Alyosha,'' said Brian, touching my son on the arm. ''I know you're angry. I just don't know who you're angry at. Is it your dad, Jarrett, or me? Well, it doesn't matter. The important thing is, you've got to let it out. You've got to talk about it. Go ahead, I can take it.''

I discounted Brian's efforts in my own head. Prematurely. Brian continued to probe and affirm. Finally, in halting syllables, then words, then full sentences, my son explained, in pained voice, how he needed people to believe that his hurt had not just happened. That it was something that had been done to him.

Brian said that it was OK. That he understood. At this point I was almost in tears. What would have taken me the rest of the day to manage, a little boy had accomplished in a veritable twinkling. As we pulled up in front of Brian's house, the boys - full of animation and laughter - were already making plans for their next visit.

I still believe that there is something benignly alien about little boys. Only now I know that under the right circumstances it is the angel in them. And so, with this inner goodness burning as a pilot light, they grow on together, under the almost passive guidance of we adults who, for now, really are the only ones who know how much our children will have to heed their better natures in a difficult, uncertain, and always surprising world.

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