These are the words that have greeted me several times lately upon answering the front door. One of the neighbor kids, Little J has clearly decided he likes spending time at our house.
A little background… A few years ago, Little J’s family moved in next door. Theirs was a yours, mine and ours kind of family. But in the short time since they settled in the house, life changed and their family situation became challenging. To make a long story short, Dad has primary custody of eight year-old Little J and his two older brothers, E and Big J. The boys are often home alone. Dad works the afternoon shift and often doesn’t get home until late. The boys often have to take their meds on their own and tuck themselves into bed for the night.
In recent years, this neighborhood has seen a boom in young families again. Much like when my kids were growing up, the yards are often filled with bunches of kids playing whiffle ball or tag. Gangs of children are often racing their bikes around the neighborhood streets. Little J is usually in the mix. And he’s often in the middle of a stir. Either the other kids (or parents) eventually ask him to leave, or he removes himself from the situation. All too often we’ve seen him trudge home slowly across our front yard, his head hanging dejectedly.
Jack, who is usually out in the garage or yard working on one project or another during the warmer months, is often witness to the fracas. On such occasions, he started calling Little J over to ask him what went wrong. Inevitably, there’d be some talk about how Little J might handle himself differently in the future in order to get along with the other kids. But nothing much changes. Little J has more than your typical share of emotional and behavioral issues to work through. With the boys’ dad being gone at work so often during these times, Little J began relying on Jack to be his friend when the other kids no longer wanted him around.
One evening not long ago when I wasn’t home, Little J and E were on their own while Dad worked. They had been outside playing with the neighborhood kids when it began to rain. All of the other kids ran to their own homes, but as there was thunder and lightning in the dark sky, the two boys were afraid to go home to an empty house. Jack invited them in, and unbeknownst to me, later spoke to the boys’ dad to let him know we’d be happy to help out with the kids whenever help was needed. Dad seemed embarrassed and said the kids didn’t need a babysitter, but he was grateful to know they had someone with whom they could check in during times of need.
Little J had other ideas. The following day, I had no sooner arrived home from an exhausting day at work when my doorbell rang. I pulled the front door open and there stood Little J.
“Is Jack home?” he asked.
“Nope,” I replied. “He’s supposed to be, but I’m not sure where he is. Sometimes he works later than usual. He’ll probably be home soon.”
“Well,” Little J responded looking away, “I’m supposed to be babysat.”
I was tired and had planned on plopping down on the couch to read for a while before making dinner. I made a mental note to remind Jack that if he was going to offer to babysit the neighborhood kids, then it was his responsibility to be at home to do the job. But Little J is so stinkin’ cute, and in my heart I knew that the kid just needed some positive attention, so I said, “Come on in.”
He barreled through the front door, and kicked his shoes off while Lucy barked and circled him excitedly. He squeezed her face and rubbed the fur on her sides making her all the happier to see this new face in our house.
Little J followed me to the kitchen and he climbed up on a stool at the island, looking to me expectantly.
“Do you have some homework to do?” I asked.
“Okay,” I said. “What should we do? Do you want to play a game?”
“Yeah, let’s play tag!” he shouted.
Feeling kind of old and wondering how that worked with just two people, I suggested, “I think we might need more people for that.”
“Okay, how about hide and seek? We can play it in your house!”
Considering that I might not want this kid roaming through our rooms, squeezing under beds or in closets, I laughed and suggested we go out to the back yard. I was sure we must have something in the shed that might be interesting to an eight year-old. We eventually settled on bean bags and spent some time tossing them back and forth, each trying our best to land the bags on the boards or better yet, drop them in the hole. Little J experimented with underarm tosses and pitcher-style throws. When it was my turn, he’d quietly chant, “Miss! Miss! Miss!” When I’d hit the board, he’d groan at his disadvantage, but when he gained ground, he’d brag and shout obnoxiously. I let him. I knew he needed to enjoy having the upper hand sometimes. When it grew too hot to keep playing, he asked if we could go inside and play video games.
“I don’t have any.” (It was a white lie. We do have a Wii and several games to use with it, but it’s not hooked up.) “But we can go see what other kinds of games I have.”
Back inside, I managed to locate the old dominoes game and we spread them all out on the kitchen island as I explained to Little J how to play. Surprisingly, this rough-and-tumble, unfocused little guy was extremely intrigued. I showed him how to count the dots on each domino in order to match it up to one that had already been laid. As we laid out chains of dominoes, he incorporated the idea that he was building a path towards me in order to blow up my “fort.” I figured I’d allow it since he was managing to keep his focus on the actual game at the same time. Not long afterwards, he looked out the front window, saw his brother, and decided it was time to leave.
A few days later upon arriving home from work, the doorbell rang again. There was Little J announcing once again that he was “here to be babysat.” When I again welcomed him inside, he asked me to hold on. He sprinted back to the end of the front walk and called out to his brother.
“E! Come on! We’re gonna get babysat!”
And so ten year-old E joined us. Big J was at his mom’s house for a few days and so at least I only had charge of the two boys. E, who hasn’t spent as much time around us as his younger brother was a bit reserved initially, but he soon grew comfortable. This time I told them that I had to make dinner and couldn’t play right away, so they’d have to entertain themselves for a while. But I was ready for them this time. I had picked up some crafts and coloring supplies at the dollar store. They were excited to color Halloween decorations while I cooked and they chatted with me about school, their favorite subjects, and a million other things. E told me he loves to cook and bake and he offered to help me. I told him we’d plan a day to bake cookies soon.
Daughter Chesney arrived home from work and began to help me in the kitchen. I invited the boys to stay for dinner. I was sure that they wouldn’t like the food I had made as it was geared more towards an adult palate. I suggested they run home and grab whatever dinner Dad had left in the refrigerator, but they insisted they wanted to eat what I was making, salmon and some wild rice soup. And they did. And they asked for seconds. I made sure they ate some fruit along with their meal and gave them each a glass of milk. I wondered how often they ate balanced meals at home if no one was there to supervise them. And so the small sense of resentment I may have felt about my unexpected babysitting duties was alleviated when I thought how much these little guys probably just needed someone to help steer them in the right direction.
After dinner, the boys ran home to feed their dog and grab a couple of board games. When they returned, we sat down on the living room floor to play Fortnite Monopoly (which, for the record is not like real Monopoly in the least!) The boys wanted Jack to play, but Jack, while happy to have the boys hang around and help him with his stuff, is not much for board games or playing in general. He suggested to E that they play vegetate instead. E looked at me and said, “I know how to play Monopoly but I don’t know how to play vegetate.”
I rolled my eyes at Jack and explained to E, “He’s teasing. Vegetate means to sit on the couch like a vegetable and do nothing. It means to be lazy.”
My criticism didn’t deter Jack so Chesney, the boys and I played the game while Jack watched t.v. I told Jack he had to watch something that wasn’t inappropriate for young minds. So no Live P.D. or anything too dark or violent. The game was fun, even if Little J’s focus kept drifting to the television and I had to keep tapping him on the knee to remind him of his turn. The boys were enthusiastic, shouting “Oh yeah” each time a move worked out in their own favor. They seemed to like having Chesney around and grew comfortable teasing her and generally treating her like a big sister. Before long, it was getting close to their bedtime and Jack broke the news that it was time to go back home.
“Who’s going to walk us home?” Little J asked, not really looking worried, but merely expectant that one of us would chauffeur them back to their house. Jack said he would accompany them and make sure they got settled okay. They went out the front door into the darkness while shouting out their thanks to Chesney and me. As they made the short trek across our driveway and over to their yard, my heart broke a little bit thinking of all the nights they have to settle in all alone. I decided there would be no more resentment, not even a little. These boys need someone. When Jack came back, he described how they got their pajamas on in quick order, put in a movie, and settled into their beds without much direction from him. Clearly they’ve got this down.
There have been a few more visits from the two younger boys since that night. Dominoes has become the favorite game, and we’ve been known to play two or three games in a row without a trace of boredom in the little guys. We recently added Uno to the options and I’ve realized that the boys are surprisingly good at board and card games, especially considering the digital age we now live in, and how often Little J continues to ask if we can’t play video games. I told them I thought our house should just be the video-free zone, and they didn’t actually seem too upset by that. I’ve noticed that although Little J often has trouble getting along with other kids, he’s charming, polite, and perfectly well behaved when he’s with us. (Which is exactly what my mom used to tell me about my Ryker when he was young. Sometimes he just needed time alone with Nanna to prove what a great kid he was.)
I find myself thinking about the little guys when they’re not here. When I’m planning my grocery list, I’m thinking about what I might pick up for the nights they might be with us. I’m enjoying the chance to sit in the evenings and play simple, old-fashioned games again. I love to listen to them talk and laugh. E was so excited to show me his folder from school this week. It contained a page showing all of the points he’d earned for good behavior in school that day. He was especially proud to point out all of the zeros in the points-lost column. I told him I was very impressed. He suggested we start tracking points for the times when they’re with us. Maybe we will.
The boys’ dad is a good man, and he’s doing everything he can to take care of his family. But he’s stretched thin on many counts. I like the idea that we can help out in some small way, and that we’re able to fulfill some of the boys’ needs when Dad can’t be around. And whether they know it or not, they’re filling in a hole in my life that I didn’t even know was there.