On Friday the little boys got out of school at noon.  Leo’s mother had arranged to bring Leo and his friend Willy home to play.  But then during the morning, Ward’s mother, Jessie had called her.

“I hear Leo and Willy are having a play date,” she began.  “Is there any way you could take Ward too?  Something just came up and I need to park him somewhere for a few hours.”

Betsy didn’t know Ward at all, and since Leo was at school she couldn’t find out how he might feel about this addition.  “I guess that would be fine, Jessie,” she said slowly, wishing it weren’t threatening to rain any minute.  She knew it would be harder to entertain them if they couldn’t be outside.

“Great!  Thanks so much Betsy.  I’ll get him around 4:00.”

When Betsy picked up the three boys, she was surprised that Ward didn’t seem to mind going home with a stranger.  The boys had a quick lunch and then went into Leo’s big playroom.  Leo was in the same kindergarten class as Willy and Ward, but was six months younger.  This age difference was noticeable to Betsy straight across the board.  Leo was less sure of himself in new situations.  He hugged his mother a little bit tighter.  He stood back at birthday parties when a piñata was being whacked like mad.

Leo was an only child whose parents were divorced.  His life with his mother was peaceful and fun.  This particular rainy afternoon was neither.  Willy and Ward chummed up against Leo.  They teased him about a stuffed bunny that he sometimes carried around.  Willy was not usually mean, but joined in if Ward instigated something unkind.

Ward looked at Leo’s drawings and laughed.  “Check out Leo’s picture of a bunny.  He even has a carrot!”

Leo smiled.  “I drew it looking at a carrot.  My mother let me have a real one to copy.”

Willy said, “That’s really good.”

Ward interrupted, “If you like pictures of carrots.  What’s with you and bunnies anyway?”

“I have a real bunny,” Leo explained.  “I’ve had him since I was two.  His name is Furry.  He’s really cute.”

Ward elbowed Willy.  “Did you catch that?  Furry!  Why didn’t you name him Googoo?”

Willy laughed too.  “Do you still drink a bottle, Leo?”

Betsy looked at the boys from the kitchen.  She had a feeling things weren’t going so well for Leo.

“Boys, would you like some popcorn?”

“Yes, Mommy.”

“Me too, please.  I love popcorn,” Willy exclaimed.

Ward looked away.  “I guess.”

“Good.  I’ll make some.”  Betsy went back into the kitchen to start the machine.

“Hey Leo, where is the famous Furry?  Let’s see him.”  Ward challenged.

“He’s in that big wooden crate.  He naps now, but he might wake up before you leave.”

“Furry naps, Willy,” Ward snickered.  “I bet he wears a diaper too.”

Willy laughed as both boys went over to the wooden crate.  Sound asleep, there he was.

Betsy came in with a big orange bowl and three little ones.  “Popcorn’s ready!”  She felt certain she saw Ward pull one of Leo’s drumsticks out of Furry’s crate.

“Here you go boys.  Ward, please do not put anything in the crate.  Furry is used to very gentle treatment,” Betsy said firmly.  She walked back in to the kitchen to start another batch, but then turned back.  The boys were all enjoying the popcorn.

Ward and Willy finished before Leo did and went back to Furry.  Leo continued to eat, having no clue that the boys were again poking Furry.

“Here is round two, children,” Betsy announced.  Then she heard Leo’s pleading voice.  “No!  Stop that. That’s so mean.”

With a quick sweep Betsy took the drumstick and flashlight out of the hands of Ward and Willy.  “That’s just awful,” she told them.

Leo lifted the bunny out of the crate.  “Oh Furry, please don’t be hurt.”

“Are you gonna kiss him?”  Ward sneered.

Betsy sat the boys down on the couch.  “It seemed like a nice idea to have you over today.  I don’t feel that way anymore.  You should know by now to not hurt animals.  I am so surprised at you!”

Ward smiled.  “He’s just a bunny.”

Willy looked stricken.  “I wish I hadn’t done that.  It was mean.  I won’t do it again.”

Leo was still holding Furry and he wasn’t shivering anymore.

Ward’s mother honked loudly.  “Hey, we are racing to Jeff’s hockey match.  We have to fly.  I’ll take Willy too.  Boys hurry!  They climbed into the car.  “Oh, and thanks a lot, Betsy.  Everything good?”

“I’ll call you tomorrow, when you aren’t so hurried.  I do want to talk to you.”

Willy said, “Thank you Betsy.  The popcorn was great.”  He turned to Leo.  “I’m really sorry about Furry.”  He gave the bunny a gentle pat.

“Ward, say thank you to Betsy,” Jessie ordered.  “Ward!”  He turned on a movie and looked ahead.

“I’ll talk to him Betsy.  I apologize for his manners… or lack of them,” Jessie said.

“We can talk tomorrow,” Betsy replied kindly, as they backed out of driveway.

Looking at her little boy, Betsy knew it wasn’t just the six months difference in age.  Leo’s heart had been treasured.  His gentleness was innate.  These traits would make his life fuller, forever.

“Mommy, I never want Ward to come over ever, ever again,” Leo told her.

Betsy knelt, looking into Furry’s and Leo’s beautiful dark eyes.  “Things might change, dear Leo.  But until they do, you have my promise.  Ward will not be invited back.”

A play date for three is never a monstrous success.  Two always chum up.  If they sense that the third child has any vulnerability, he or she will immediately be left out or targeted for teasing.  From that moment, the die is cast for an awful time, including gratuitous hurting of feelings, and destructiveness (animals, toys, buildings, whatever).  The host mother will be figuratively pulling her hair out, resolving to never have a trio again.

A mother should not allow herself to be pushed into taking a child home if she doesn’t know him, and she can’t consult her child.  Betsy will know better next time.

Children need to be taught and shown how to be good to animals.  They need to witness people they feel close to gently caring for animals.  Feeling that we all share this time on earth will be so rewarding.  Without such experiences, children have only other influences to guide them, as their real hearts are developing.  Hurting animals mustn’t be tolerated.

Written by: Anne Martine Cook, Managing Partner & Mom, with 35+ years experience teaching nursery school children.

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