Saturday always starts out with a morning at the beach. We load up the boys surfboards, some snacks and water. Then we drive around town picking up other kids that want to surf and play, too. We spend a good 3-4 hours playing in the surf, digging holes, collecting snails, making tunnels and more. By about noon we drop all the kids off and head home.

We unpack, eat some lunch and get ready for the next group of kids. A group of about 6 kids from Copey, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Jaco wait outside the entrance to their slum, watching for our green van. We pick them up every Saturday at 2 to spend a few hours at our home. They talk about this event all week long, looking forward to Saturday.

Jefferson walks in the door and announced, “Leslie is our mom.” Of course I am touched, that is very sweet, but my heart sinks when he says it. Why is he saying that? Normal children do not walk in and declare that I am their mom. What kind of family life must he have that would cause him to say that?

They love to feel the warm water coming out of the shower. They crowd around as I turn the shower on and squeal as they feel the warm water. They’ve even gotten in fully clothed to try the shampoo and conditioner, enjoying the smells and the warmth and being wrapped in a warm, dry towel.

We have fruit for a snack and they devour anything we put in front of them. Most of the afternoon is spent swimming in the pool and jumping on the trampoline. Last week Jefferson locked himself in our playroom. I asked him to unlock the door and he did. I explained to him that in our house we leave the doors unlocked. Then I looked at him. “You wanted to play alone, didn’t you?” He nodded. “Is it sometimes hard to find a place to be alone?” He nodded again.

This week an interesting scenario developed. In addition to the “Copey” kids, a group of three boys from “Invu” another poor neighborhood showed up. They walked in and eye-balled each other. There was definitely some rivalry going on between the two groups of kids. One of the copey kids whispered in my ear that one of the Invu boys had said they all have lice.

Well, I thought, this should be interesting. I was hoping in my heart that it would be a chance for them to make friends with each other. Some of the boys found a pile of foam tubing that we had been using to make marble runs. They realized these made very nice weapons – and they did, infact, they are so light that you can hit another person without it hurting. They began to run hooping and hollering aorund the yards smacking each other with tubing. It erupted into three Invu boys all against one Copey boy. I could see the Copey boy starting to get really angry and it was about to turn into a full-blown fight. I quickly grabbed all the tubing and stopped it before it went any further.

I’m sure the boys assumed they would not be permitted to play that any longer. But I had a different idea in mind. I’ve come to realize that for boys particularly, playfighting is a great game. Not only is it fun, it helps children to learn and develop some very important social skills. First of all they often have to work in teams and figure out how to work together. Secondly to keep the game going they have to be able to control their movements so as not to cause any real pain, just enough to keep it “all in fun.” They have to be aware of the emotions of other people, so as not to push too far. They also have to understand the intentions of others when they get nailed – that it’s not a direct attack on them, it’s all part of the game. So it involves using self control, understanding others’ emotions, having respect for other people, working in a team and more. All of this is happening in a simple game of “war,” “wrestling” or other type of play fight.

So, holding the foam tubing I gathered the boys around me. Here are the rules I said. First, you have to work in teams that are fair. It cannot be all the boys against one boy. This was going to force the Copey boys to work together with Invu boys – they looked at each other a little awkwardly and called out who would be on whose team. Secondly, I said, this game is all in fun. You have to be watching each other’s faces. If someone is looking angry or upset you have to back off and leave him alone. If someone doesn’t want to play, respect him. Only play with the ones that want to play. I’m going to be watching your faces too. If I see that you are getting upset or angry, I’ll help you take a break to calm down. Remember, this is all in fun. They looked at each other and at me with eyes wide and kind of laughed awkwardly. I could tell they had never heard anyone tell them these things before and they looked amazed that I was actually going to let them fight each other with foam tubing! I figured it was worth the risk.

And off they went into a fabulous game of play fighting with foam tubing. Scott of course was in the center of it all. Even Jude and Ezra got into it. At a few points in time, they would start to gang up on a “weaker” kid and I would step in and remind them of the rules. Another time they started going after a kid who clearly did not want to play. I asked them what the rules are and they repeated them to me proudly and left the boy alone. The play finally ended when everyone was exhausted. They all headed to the trampoline – Copey and Invu kids together to play a big game of crack the egg with Scott.

These two groups of rivaling boys had come together, played all afternoon and now they were leaving as friends. Maybe not close friends, but definitely not enemies. They had a shared experience in common now and maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to judge and put down others from different neighborhoods. Maybe they would realize they’re all the same underneath. At least they’re heading in a new direction.

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