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Where Do You Draw the Line?

At the park recently, Maddie and I were
waiting for our turn at the water fountain – also known as
the water balloon-maker. Maddie always wants to make several water
balloons, then simply carry them around in her hands for the sheer
delight of the way they feel. On days when the water
fountain’s in high demand, I’ll make one water balloon,
then have Maddie step to the back of the line and let others have
their turn. This keeps the other kids from becoming antsy, teaches
Maddie patience and makes her be sure she really needs six

On this particular day, we were waiting behind one little girl who
made a battalion of balloons. Maddie was patient and had just begun
to step up for her turn when a little boy ran up, cutting her off.
“Excuse me,” I said to him politely, “But
we’ve been waiting and I think we’re next.”

To the boy’s credit, he didn’t
look taken aback or fight it at all – he seemed genuinely
unaware that we’d been there and was very polite about
getting behind us. The whole thing went smoothly, and I was
conscious the whole time of my daughter’s eyes on me,
drinking in my actions and decisions. I was very aware that
she’d just learned something from that exchange. That mommy
would stand up for her, or that she could stand up for herself, or
that patience is rewarded, or that fairness is enforced –
take your pick, they were all in those few sentences.

Maddie (read: Mommy) filled her one allotted balloon and stepped to
the back of the line without complaint. This time around we were
behind a little Hispanic girl perhaps four years old, shy and
quiet. As we got towards the front of the line, a group of older
kids once again came running up and cut in line directly in front
of the little girl. No one said anything to her, and she had
clearly been stepping up onto the block to reach the fountain. The
little girl, who had seen me interrupt the earlier boy’s
attempts to cut, looked at me. And even worse, my daughter looked
at me. What did I do?

I’m ashamed to tell you I did nothing. I looked around for
parents of any of the older kids and found one mom watching the
scene, clearly seeing and just as clearly deciding not to
intervene. And while I wanted to step in, I was afraid it would
look to the other mom like I was teaching her nonwhite child some
manners, or pointing out what a bad mom she was, or something like
that. I could just hear the mom coming over to me with an irate
“It’s none of your business!” And by any
standard, the child was Not My Responsibility: I'd have intervened
in a heartbeat if it'd been Naomi. The jilted little girl accepted
the situation, silently waited out the group of invaders, then
stepped up for her drink. Was it my imagination, or were her
shoulders a little more bowed as she walked away?

I’ve struggled with this ever since it happened. What’s
the right thing to do? Any time I interact with other children on
the playground, I don’t hesitate to enforce my morals on
them: if a child asks me for a water balloon, I ask them to say
please before I’ll give it to them. And obviously if someone
wrongs my daughter I’ll step in, or at the very least discuss
the situation afterwards. How can I expect her to know how to react
in social situations unless I model it for her first?

But if I had stepped in on behalf of that other girl, would I have
been imposing my beliefs, my set of decorum, on strangers? Would I
have been a busybody, interfering in a situation that affected me
not at all? On the other hand, by staying out, what did I just
teach my daughter –that she’s worth defending but other
children are not? That if she sees a wrong being committed, she
should simply stand back and watch and say, “It’s not
my responsibility?”

Obviously I’m taking the situation to an extreme here. I know
that if a child had been in danger I wouldn’t have hesitated
to intervene. And I’m sure that none of the kids involved
– including my own – thought even once about the
incident afterwards. But I know that on some level it reinforced
something within each of them: that you can cut with impunity, that
adults don’t help, that Mommy’s not all-powerful,

I’m still not sure what the right thing to do was. But since
it’s still nagging at me, I’m guessing I didn’t
do it. What do you think? What would you have done?


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