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Setting Limits—A Session

We were at the end of a (non-RC) weekend workshop for an assortment of people from many countries who happened to be staying at a small island center. There was a five-year-old boy there whom I will call Tommy. He was bright and energetic and full of life—and mischief. Unfortunately, the center had not expected or prepared for children at the workshop. Their care was left up to the parents, who wanted to devote their attention to the workshop, and the children were told to “go and play.” This was not meeting Tommy’s needs, and he constantly sought attention from the adults. What attention he got from his young single mother was mostly an attempt to try and control him in his fleeting assaults on people. I liked Tommy. A lot. I thought his wild forays were often imaginative and humorous, but they were also provocative and sometimes unwanted—especially by the other little boy his age who complained about him.I wanted to take some time to give Tommy attention, to play with him and let him use me to express and let go of the “demons” that demanded our notice. But this was not an RC family workshop, and as he was not disrupting the participants during the circles, I thought I would wait until the workshop ended.Fate—or Tommy—hastened an intervention. At the end of the final circle, Tommy began hitting the smaller boy and, as always, laughed and ran away. His mother tried to grab him, but he was too fleet for her.I had been watching this develop, as we all had when he began hitting the protesting boy. I thought to myself, “All right, Tommy, you have been showing us all what you need, so I guess it’s time now for me to help you with that.”I was out of my chair quickly and was right there when he danced away from his mother. I reached around from behind him and snatched his left wrist with my right hand as I grabbed his right wrist with my left, and I hugged him to me, his back pressed to the front of my body. Then I lifted him swiftly and backed us both up to my chair and sat down with him on my lap. At first he laughed—it was a game, and at last he was getting the attention he wanted. Then he tried to get away, but I held on, firmly but gently, using my embrace to immobilize the struggle of his arms, avoiding his attempts to kick me with his feet or butt me with his head. He shouted at me to let go, and I stayed calm, not angry or upset, telling him in a soft and friendly tone, “I’m not going to let go; I’m not going to let you hit anyone. I’m just going to hold you until you calm down.”He screamed in indignation and anger for me to release him and used, over and over, the limited number of foul words he had acquired in his short life. I just kept telling him, in a light and pleasant voice, “I like you, Tommy. I really do. But I am not going to let you go now while you are still so angry.” And I hugged him closer and nuzzled him playfully.“Let me go!” he shouted. “I hate you! I’m going to kill you!”“Well then,” I said, still very lightly, “I guess I better not let you go; I don’t want to be killed!”And so it went for about forty-five minutes. The circle—at first interested, then concerned—began trying to get him to understand, but I told them that while he was so upset there was no point in trying to reason with him—he could not hear it through his anger. I kept reminding myself that his physical struggle was just what he needed and really wanted. His actions had been a cry for help, without his awareness or conscious intention. He didn’t know what to do with all those wild, aggressive feelings pressing inside him except to rage and fight, and he needed to do it in a safe way that wouldn’t hurt him or anyone else. I had to tell myself that, as old as I was, he was having to put out much more energy fighting than I was holding and I could outlast him and give him the opportunity to discharge all that stuff boiling inside him. I reminded myself what a wonderful little boy he was and how I admired the warrior in him that wouldn’t give up; that the distresses eating at him were not his fault, not anyone’s fault; and that my holding him, my physical closeness, and my liking him and pulling for him* were things he wanted and needed.Eventually, of course, he did get tired, and his mind clicked on and started to figure out how he could get out of this. I could feel that in him. I had done this so many times with so many children—and it had always worked.“I’ll stop if you will,” he said.“Okay, Tommy. I’ll let you go if you can make an agreement with me.”A big change. Now he was curious. I watched him really thinking. “What’s that?”“You have to agree to stop hitting people; that’s all. But you have to really mean it and really do it. I believe you can do that.” He thought again for a moment. “Not even my mother?”“No, Tommy, not even your mother. Hitting hurts.” He thought again. “All right.”I set him down and he broke loose instantly and ran. We all watched to see what he would do next.He ran around behind the circle, to all the people, one at a time, most of them strangers to him, and hugged every one—a big, strong hug for each.When he came to me, the last one, he hugged me shyly from behind, then without letting go he worked his way around to crawl up onto my lap and put his head on my chest, hugging hard and crying. By now I was crying, too, and so were most of the circle. And then he fell asleep.For the rest of that evening, and the next day on the long boat ride to the mainland, Tommy never left my side. He snuggled, he played and laughed with me, as if he had known me forever and it was the most natural thing in the world. And so it was—the absolutely natural way that people could always be with one another if they had no confusing distressful feelings but were relaxed and open to enjoy each other.That was almost two years ago, and I have seen Tommy since and played with him. We are comfortable with each other, and his mother says he is quite a transformed little boy, that she and all of us had a great lesson that day on the island.

Manitonquat (Medicine Story)

Greenville, New Hampshire, USA

(Present Time 171, April 2013)


Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00