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Now, Boys

by Julia Sneden

A few months ago in this column, I likened the behavior of our presidential candidates to the behavior of kindergarten children ("Did So!" "Did Not!" Children, Children). That was unkind of me, and I apologized to the next kindergarten class I came across.

Now the pundits are giving us a constant barrage of justifications why we should/should not listen to this official or that official, why we are/are not in a constitutional crisis, when this stalemate may/may not be resolved, etc. ad nauseam. The candidates themselves, having tried to stay dignified and above it all, are beginning to crack, or rather to take more cracks at each other. 

Alas, we're back to the kindergarten, and I am reminded of all those times when a couple of children found themselves locked in a pattern of unpleasant behavior. There are only so many things a teacher can do to diffuse children's growing dislike of each other.

You can pair them for tasks, hoping that they will discover one another's strengths as they labor toward a common goal. This works especially well if there are other teams working toward the same goal. Of course, pairing Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore might mean giving each of them two years in the White House, which isn't exactly sharing. True sharing is a lot to ask of a five-year-old.

You can sit each child down separately, and have a direct discussion of the problem, or you can sit them down together and attempt the same kind of talk. In either case, you need to be braced for a lot of eye rolling, wriggling, tears, and protestations. It seems to me that in the case of the candidates, we've already seen most of that.

You can withhold privileges until there's an agreement to bury the hatchet, something along the line of: "Neither of you will be allowed to go out on the playground until you've shaken hands." The problem is that once the kids have complied, whoever is supervising the playground will need to spend all his/her time shadowing the two. As far as they're concerned, the bargain was complete at the door, and all bets are now off.

You can attempt to ascertain who started it, a lost cause if ever there was one, because even in the unlikely event that you do find out, the other party is inevitably guilty of continuing it. 

Which brings us to the old teacher trick of announcing: "I don't care who started this. I'm interested in who's going to be mature enough to stop it!" Excuse me, but I am willing to bet that that line will be the ultimate face-saver for the loser of this election.

There is another tactic, one that often worked where a teacher's intervention did not: turning to the mothers. I wish I could say "mothers and fathers," but except in a very few cases, with very wise fathers, ringing them in was chancy. They were apt to advise us to let the children duke it out, or, even worse, to advise their children to "stand tough. If he hits you, sock him back." We think that mothers' love is fierce and protective, but let me tell you, fathers can be fiercer. Very few fathers have children who might be wrong, and they have the testosterone to prove it.

No, it's the mothers who often see their children as beloved but fallible and sometimes in need of helpful intervention. There was one mother I knew who solved her child's problem, literally through prayer. She simply talked to her child and asked what it was about the perceived enemy that her daughter didn't like. She then suggested that they add the child to their nightly prayers, asking God to help her not to be unkind. Whether there was a divine intervention, or merely a psychological shift in one child makes no difference. It worked.

Another wise mother called the mother of a child who was intimidating her son. Each of the mothers had heard just one side of the story, but being intelligent women, they were open to other interpretations of the problem. The two of them agreed to meet "accidentally" at the neighborhood park, children in tow. They engaged each other in conversation and the children played, perforce, together. They wound up going to the local soda shop for ice cream, a spontaneous treat planned well in advance. This action was followed up a few days later by an invitation for one child (the bully) to visit the home of the other for play after school. The children never became best friends, but the bullying stopped, and the intimidated child gained in confidence.

It occurs to me that both our candidates have formidable mothers. Why not ring them in on this election mess?
The country knows and admires Barbara Bush, who seems both good-humored and levelheaded. During ex-President Bush's last run for office, I remember seeing a bumper sticker that said: "A Vote for Bush is a Vote for Barbara."

Al Gore's mother, Pauline, is less well known, but she is a remarkable woman in her own right. A self-starting woman who became a lawyer in the days when females rarely even dreamed of such a thing, she is reported to be witty and pragmatic and highly intelligent.

Surely these mothers could sit down and straighten out the mess their boys have gotten into. And why not have a pair of gray-haired female pundits next to James Baker and Warren Christopher? At the very least, they'd provide some balance! 
 Come to think of it, one of the few comforts of this election is that no matter which side wins, we're bound to have a truly admirable First Mother.

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