On the way home from school recently Zoe told me that her teacher had discovered a trove of ants on the playground. Zoe took it upon herself to warn her classmates to stay away from the ants because they might bite. While those ants were probably harmless, it’s completely understandable that Zoe was concerned about the ants. Last week when we were visiting family in South Carolina, my aunt warned Zoe to stay away from a massive anthill containing somewhat angrier Southern ants than the ones at Zoe’s school’s playground. Regardless, I imagine Zoe’s classmates ignored her advice. Zoe said “my friends in my class are always getting into danger and I’m always trying to save them from danger.” Uh oh.
Fortunately or not, depending on your worldview, Zoe comes from a long line of rule followers. We try to teach her the right way to behave and how to take care of herself in the world, and she more or less does what she’s supposed to do. Of course she’s four and there’s plenty of running away and hiding and jumping on the bed, but generally she is pretty obedient.
So when other kids are not following the rules (at least our family’s rules, which likely have no bearing at all on what those kids think about how they should behave), Zoe gets upset. They are not doing what she knows she (and presumably all kids) are supposed to do. So she tries to set them straight. You can guess how well that works out. Recently at a friend’s wedding where she was running around with a pack of kids, she came back to me with a pouty expression, complaining that the boys were all running around poking each other with sticks. I suggested she play with the girls instead. She said the girls were doing the same thing. She explained that she had told all the kids they shouldn’t be poking each other with sticks (not an unreasonable request, really) but they didn’t listen. I told her that she couldn’t really make kids listen to her if they were playing and she should just try to find something else to do.
How do you explain the fine line between doing the right thing, trying to be a good person in the world and help others, and minding your own business when no one is going to listen to you anyway? I admire Zoe’s instinct to help and protect her friends (or strangers) and keep them safe from harm. I applaud the concern and empathy she demonstrates. I want her to keep following our rules to keep herself safe as well. But I don’t want her to feel like she’s responsible for everyone else (a characteristic that has plagued me for most of my life and been the subject of many hours with a therapist). If she sees someone really and truly in danger, I would want her to intervene, by telling an adult or doing what she could to help. But most of the time, if someone is climbing up the slide, or touching a bug, or poking his friend with a stick, she really doesn’t need to say anything. There’s a nuance there that even adults struggle with–when do we step in and when do we go about our business? When do we say something at the risk of embarrassing ourselves or annoying someone else because we think someone might need help? It’s something I’m still trying to figure out, and I just turned 37. I’m wondering how to teach it to someone who just turned four.