Although the original meaning of the phrase, “to cross the line” was literal, it has evolved into a common figurative expression along with a modern-day dilemma: it is generally impossible to determine where “the line” actually is until it’s too late.
Hot topics like politics and religion aside, it’s hard to imagine a line more elusive or befuddling than the one that waveringly indicates what is appropriate and acceptable when interacting with other people’s children.
Recently when my 11-year-old son gathered with some friends at a near-by baseball diamond, I found myself desperately searching for “the line”, and once finding it, clumsily attempting to toe it.
My daughter and I were out for a bike ride and since we “happened to be passing by” the ball diamond, we went over to see how the boys were doing.
There were five unsupervised boys, aged 10 and 11. (For those of you who are raising, have raised, or have ever passed one on the street, I’m guessing you know the implications of that statement.)
My son and one boy were simultaneously tossing balls in the air and batting them toward each other – not that big of a deal, but as each boy was equipped with only a bat, neither appeared particularly able to protect himself from an oncoming ball. My son was positioned at home plate, batting into the outfield, and the other batter, who was in the outfield, was batting toward home plate.
Two of the other boys were about nine feet high, spread eagled on the fence behind home plate. They were attempting to retrieve a baseball glove that had “accidentally” been thrown onto the horizontal surface of the fence.
I really, really wanted to tell the boys to get off the fence, and had to fight the instinct to intervene. I’ve been accused, more than once, of being over-cautious, and I wondered if I might be over-reacting to this situation.
I also had to consider the possibility of crossing my son’s erratic “line” that, like an elastic band, with a bit of stretching and twisting changes position based on the unpredictable amount of involvement he wants from a parent at any given time.
I was also feeling uncomfortable about being a parent who appears to willingly dole out independence, only to seek out the recipient and criticize how it’s being handled.
I cautiously approach the line. “Are you guys OK up there?” They assured me that they were absolutely fine, in that why-would-you-waste-your-breath-asking sort of a tone.
I venture a little further. “How would your mothers feel about you being up there?”
Before anyone has a chance to answer, my son, sounding irritated says, “Mom, they’re fine. We’re all fine. Really.”
The fifth boy, whose brother was already on the fence, asked me to hold his (mother’s) cell phone as he confidently informed me that he was the only one who would be able to reach the glove, and he too, began to scale the fence.
It was clear that this situation would be happening with or without my involvement, but since I was witnessing it, I grappled with whether or not I should be allowing it to happen.
Really, I should be ordering them immediately down for what they would surely consider a grueling conversation about independence, responsibility and safety.
So, there I was at the line; now I had to decide if I should cross it… or not.
As my eyes darted from the boys on the fence to the boys batting balls toward each other, the cell phone rang. I felt a surge of relief (back-up!), neutralized by guilt for being so ridiculously indecisive.
The phone belongs to the mother of the two brothers, who is also a friend of mine. Although she knew our sons were together, she didn’t expect me to be answering her phone. After a brief exchange not dissimilar to “Who’s on first” she asked what the boys were up to. “About nine feet!” I truthfully answered, and explained what they were doing.
She gasped, and bolstered by her reaction, I took a flying leap over the line and suggested that all three come off the fence. They politely listened while I briefly explained why climbing to that height is not such a good idea. I then agonized over whether I should stay there and head off any more potentially dangerous situations, or move on.
The boys had to be home soon, so I felt confident that in such a short period of time, things would be OK.
As my daughter and I got back onto our bikes and rode away, I found myself wondering about the origin of the expression, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.”