Monday, June 13, 2011

Childhood Shenanigans & Deadly Decisions

In Stone Mountain, Georgia, right in the middle of summer 2008, there occurred an incident that defines the very word "tragedy." During their summer break, two brothers, ages 14 and 11, drowned in a pond. Each child died in succession, the older one drowning after jumping in to try and save his younger brother. More tragic still was the situation that led up to their deaths.

Police say the brothers had been playing with a group of children when one child apparently tossed a can into the water. It must have been something of some personal importance, because the younger child, 11-year-old Jaqures Brown, went in to retrieve it. When the lad went underwater and didn't come up, his older brother Jacoby jumped in to rescue him. Sadly, he disappeared under the murky water as well. The bodies of both boys were later found about 10 feet from the shore of the pond.

This is a unique story, but one with a common theme: one child's callous treatment of another child's possessions sets off a chain of events that ends with a child dead or seriously injured. I'm reminded of a similar personal experience that took place several years back. I was returning from child care bus-runs when a scene quickly unfolded in front of me. The school bus had just let off a group of elementary students outside an apartment complex, and so dozens of kids were walking home from the stop. Three boys were walking back in a group, when one of the older boys, apparently acting quite maliciously, threw the younger boys possession, which had been given to him to look at, out in the middle of the road. Instantly this boy’s face contorted into a look of agony and despair, and he burst into tears. I was probably 100 yards away, yet I'll never forget that look. I couldn't tell exactly what it was the older boy had thrown in the road, but it was quite apparently something of significant emotional importance. The child who threw it seemed mighty pleased with himself. Just as suddenly as this boys face had distorted into despair, I found myself overcome with anger and rage over what was transpiring.

I pumped my brakes to try and avoid running whatever it was over, but there wasn't time to stop. I think I missed it anyhow. For a moment I planned to stop and give the pair the scolding of their lives. But considering my emotional state, I envisioned myself chasing them down the road and thought better of it. I considered stopping the van in the middle of the road and helping the child retrieve whatever it was that was thrown. But then I wondered about how wise it would be to stop in the middle of a moderately trafficked road to get out and hunt for a trinket while leaving a van of 14 grade-school kids unattended in the middle of the left lane. There were no sides to pullover to. In the end, my indecision triumphed and I drove right past. Keep in mind this is all going in about 2 or 3 seconds at 35 miles-per-hour. By the time I decided I should have stopped to help the poor kid fetch it, we were already well past. It's a moment I've regretted everyday since. I should have doubled back and found some way to park and help. So to that little boy, wherever he is today, please accept heartfelt apologies for my inaction. To those boys who should have been chased down the road, shame on you.

The reason I bring this story up is because it illustrates an all-too-common pattern for how childhood shenanigans (or just plain meanness) can turn tragic. Other children have died after being hit by a car while trying to retrieve something in the road that was rudely deposited there in just such a manner by another child. I don't know whether this youngster got his possession back, but I'm fairly certain he got through the day safely, because I never heard about it on the news. There were no sirens to be heard from our center, which was only about half a mile away as the crow flies. Still, the potential danger of such a situation cannot be understated.

What happens all too often is that this teary-eyed little boy, overcome with the emotions of the moment, rushes out into traffic to retrieve his treasure and gets nailed by an oncoming car. Or jumps into a river to try and get his toy back, only to be swept away downstream to a watery death. Or falls through the ice and dies of hypothermia after a mean-spirited peer tosses his mitten out in the middle of a frozen pond. Others have been hit by trains or suffered fatal falls from trees or ledges. The stories of tragedy go on and on, each a little different but all with the same theme: They are set into motion by a child chucking something.

Much of child safety and accident prevention is a game of instilling children with a repertoire of second thoughts to avoid ill-advised decisions. Building that instinctual voice that pipes up and warns them of dangerous situations. So if you get the opportunity, either before bed tonight or during the ride to school tomorrow, tell your kids about these two stories. Talk with them about how it's not very wise to throw anything in the road, onto tracks, or into bodies of water. Talk with them about how horrible they'd feel later on for doing such a thing out of meanness. How disappointed you'd be in them. How demented preschool teachers in big white vans might just get out and chase them down the road next time around. Also tell this story from the victim’s standpoint, and emphasize how important it is to stop, calm down, and get help so that you can act safely to retrieve it. Teachers: these stories make a great opportunity for group time discussion.

A little discussion of potential consequences could get kids to stop and think twice and sometimes that extra thought is all it takes to make the difference between life and death. It might also save other children from ever having to manage such an agonizing expression. Either way, it’s worth the talk.

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