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(Illustration by Linda Helton)

Barbara and Willie Mahany

Little Examples
Alumna vows her small son will be a gentle man in a not-so-gentle world.

By Barbara Mahany

Stopping himself mid-splat at the kitchen counter the other day, my husband looked up and asked, "What's our policy on ants?"

Yes, I thought, mentally pumping my fist in the air. This kindness-toward-all-creeping-things is seeping into the deepest darknesses of life in our house.

"We don't squash them," I answered.

"We move them outside," answered my 6-year-old, the one for whom the whole policy, philosophy and teaching plan had been developed in the first place.

Now I never set out to wage a one-woman war on unkindness toward creepy crawlers. In fact, I've been known to lay out an ant trap (when they're copious enough and bold enough to march across my face in the night); it's just that we have limits, and the limit is no squishing allowed.

What I did set out to do, lo those six long years ago, is to try to raise a kind and gentle child in a world where lurching to a stop at a crosswalk and laying heavy hands on the horn is considered a rational alternative to rolling right over some poor bloke who dared to get from Point A to Point B, embarking on pavement to do so.

It hasn't been so hard, and it's not that I'm loony. I have not issued strict edicts. I have not outlawed whole realms of the modern-day world. I have not ranted and raved.

I have simply made choices, steered him away from some things, toward others. And, Lord, I have talked. Talked about what's kind and unkind, what's fair and unfair, what's gentle and what's mean. Children are born into a multiple-choice world, and he needed to learn by watching, by feeling, by hearing, again and again and again, that kind is better than unkind, that gentle is better than brusque.

Maybe we were blessed in a peculiar sort of way when a little boy in preschool started to pick on my little boy. Every night, when we tucked him in bed, we got the latest episode of "Troubles with [the Tormentor]," a saga that seemed like it would never end. It gave us something to talk about each and every night. It gave us a crystal clear picture of how not to be because my little boy knew how it felt to be on the receiving end of hurt.

I'll never forget the day my heart swelled when another mother came to tell me that my little boy had stepped in to protect another child from the Tormentor. Her own little boy came home to tell her he wanted to be like my Willie because he protected kids. That's a story I'd prayed I'd someday hear.

He's a kindergartner now. And the conversations come in the most unexpected moments. Like the day I was crossing the street, holding Willie's hand, and a woman in a sport utility vehicle decided to blast the horn just as we passed in front of her. When I tapped on her window, gently, to ask whatever the problem might be, she replied by lifting her middle finger and pointing it straight up in the air.

My little boy didn't see that, but he'd heard the horn all right. And he could tell his peace-keeping mama was rattled. We talked a lot that day about how little unkindnesses can ruin a person's day. We talked about how that woman must be really sad somewhere in her life because why else would she be so mean for no reason to strangers?

My little boy learns a lot tagging along beside me. He sees me give cuts to the person in the grocery store line who has far fewer items than I do. He hears me say thank you wherever we go. He's watched me chase after a little boy who slipped out of the schoolyard gate to wander aimlessly into the big bad city. He knew we'd be late for friends waiting at our house, but later that night at dinner he had it all figured out: "Polite didn't matter. Safety comes first. You might have saved that boy's life. What if he'd walked over to the Amtrak yard?"

It's not that I'm trying to live a holier-than-thou kind of life. It's just that I know someone's watching. And if I blow it, he's the one who learns the lesson.

And the ants, they'd pay the price.

Barbara Mahany (GJ82) has been a staff writer at the Chicago Tribune since graduating from Medill. She and her husband, Blair Kamin, the Tribune's architecture critic, live in Chicago with their son, Willie, 6, and an army of undaunted ants.