Squabbles among the many children living in our university housing complex were not uncommon, but this time my three-year-old’s cry sounded urgent. I could hear her coming the whole length of our building and hurried out to meet her. She told me that a big boy had hit her “for no reason.”
“Maybe he thinks I’m a mean animal or something,” she sniffed, genuinely puzzled and hurt.
My anger began to flare. I would find this boy and inform him that if he did not leave my daughter alone, I would. … But there was nothing I could effectively threaten him with. I thought I might tell Martha to play on our side of the building, but since all the grounds were common property, there was no way to keep the “big boy” on his side. Besides, I didn’t want to teach Martha to be afraid of people.
Finally, acting on the only other alternative I could think of, I walked into the apartment and took two chocolate chip cookies from the cookie box. Martha held the cookies in one hand and clutched my hand with the other as we went to look for the boy.
We found him around the corner, bouncing on the neighbor’s Wonderhorse. Studiously indifferent, he pretended not to see us as we approached. He was five or six years old, new in the neighborhood, and neatly dressed. He had probably just come home from kindergarten.
Smiling brightly, I explained that we wanted to be friends and had brought him a cookie. With some prodding, Martha reached around from behind me and held out a cookie. The boy stared straight ahead, ignoring us. I tried again, repeating the message. This time he silently looked at us sideways, unable to comprehend why someone he had just hit was offering him a cookie. Finally I blurted out an introduction: “This is my daughter, Martha. We want to be friends.”
The name worked magic. His face opened up; he took the cookie and said his name was Kevin Leslie Miller.
I congratulated myself on my cleverness all afternoon until Martha came in crying. Kevin had hit her again. This time he hid under the stairwell, but we searched him out and told him we wanted to be friends. At my insistence, he grudgingly promised not to hit and to be friendly.
But that promise didn’t end Kevin’s fighting. He fought with all the big kids and bullied all the little ones. Martha hid behind me whenever she saw him coming, and played close by our door. Taking the cue from his sister, my one-year-old cried whenever he saw Kevin. One afternoon someone’s father had to untangle Kevin and another boy who were punching and kicking each other on the grass. As I watched, I asked the girl standing next to me if she knew Kevin’s family.
“He’s my cousin,” she admitted, rolling her eyes up and pursing her lips in disapproval. “That Kevin’s a bad ’un.”
Observing Kevin’s dusty and contorted face as the father pulled him off the other boy, still swinging, I was inclined to agree. But a little nagging sadness whispered that it was a shame that a six-year-old boy was already labeled a “bad ’un.”
Several days later the baby was pulling his toy turtle on the sidewalk in front of the screen door. I heard him scream and rushed out. I found him sitting in a mud puddle, scared and crying. A passerby pointed out Kevin as the culprit who had pushed the baby down. My anger flared up again, and I felt myself almost in tears with indignation.
When his friends and cousins saw that Kevin was discovered, they began to escort him from the far side of the yard to our front door, mounted on tricycles, bikes, and Big Wheels. As this execution procession slowly advanced, I searched furiously for a solution. Hadn’t this gone too far? Shouldn’t I reprove Kevin once and for all? But traces of long-forgotten lessons and fragments of scripture began to whisper in my mind, and something inside told me that mean words would only make Kevin meaner. Kevin looked scared this time—picking on the older kids was bad enough, but pushing a baby was really bad. I picked Bryce up and told Kevin his name, remembering the magic of our first introduction. “I’m trying to teach him to play close to our door and not wander off,” I explained to Kevin. “I need your help to watch him so he won’t get hurt.” Looking relieved, Kevin just nodded.
We began to mount a more aggressive friendship campaign. Every time Kevin zoomed past on his bike, we waved and shouted hello. Even the baby learned to wave. One afternoon while the baby slept, I noticed out the back window that Kevin and a cousin were playing in the sandbox. I pulled a reluctant Martha around back to play, too. The children cooked up sand pizzas, hamburgers, and spaghetti for me to try. They were pleased when I “sampled” their cooking and said “yum,” but rolled with laughter when I grimaced and threw down their “yucky” concoctions. Another time, Kevin, his cousin, and his mother were picnicking under the big elm in back. Waiting until they were almost finished, we carried out a plate of fresh cookies to share with them for dessert. Kevin’s mother and I chatted while Martha cautiously eyed Kevin.
I’m not sure when the change began. At first Kevin just acknowledged our greetings with a nod in passing. Then I noticed that he would shout at his friends to be careful when they rode their bikes past the baby playing on the sidewalk. The fighting diminished. Martha didn’t cringe so much when she saw him coming.
One day I heard a knock on the door. Turning, I saw a dark face peering in through the screen. “Hello, Kevin. Come in.” Kevin opened the door, carefully walked around the baby sitting among his blocks, and patted him big-brotherly on the head.
“Do you have any cookies?” he asked.
“As a matter of fact, I do,” I replied, as I held out the cookie box to him. Kevin chatted with me for a few minutes before he left. After that, he became our children’s special champion and defender in the neighborhood and occasionally dropped by to visit with me.
As the summer went on, Kevin’s need to be defensive seemed to drop away, and he became a regular part of the gang. No doubt part of the change was due to the fact that he just became more at home in the neighborhood; he wasn’t the new boy any longer.
But we did learn a valuable lesson that we have tried to apply since. The Savior’s counsel that we love our enemies and do good to those that “despitefully use” us (see Matt. 5:44) is not impractical. Returning good for evil is a very practical response to unfriendly people—the only response that can improve our relationship with them.