Prison Rules on the Playground


Awhile back, my daughter was having an issue with a friend.  This child pegged my daughter as a BFF.  Initially, Harper was on board with it… As time passed, though, it would be apparent that this child was a nightmare.  She would cry when she didn’t get her way, push and shove Harper, and revert to saying unkind things if she didn’t have complete control all the time…

Secretly I called her Nellie Oleson…


But… Really… She was way worse.

Her parents thought everything this child did was cute and had a “kids-will- be- kids kind of attitude” which aggravated the situation more.  And by situation… I mean ME!

Now, advice books, and parenting blogs and local “Parental Nurturing” classes at the Learning Annex will tell you “to include everyone in your child’s play” and “Children need to be given the proper tools for unwarranted disagreements in the field of life”.   Proper tools? Unwarranted disagreements?  No.  The only advice I needed was from a convicted felon named T-Bone Jackson.

When I was a fourteen-year-old teenager living in Alaska, my parents befriended T-Bone.  We hadn’t lived in Alaska for very long when T-Bone showed up at our front door, frozen and in need of cash.  My Dad was a Southern Baptist minister and my mother was a teacher.

Despite being homeless, and having several run-ins with the law, T-Bone was quite pleasant… He became a loose extension of our family for a while. My mother would drive T-Bone around… To the Social Security Office… To the Unemployment Office… To the Men’s Shelter.

He sat next to me in the minivan and we would talk about all sorts of things.  It was on one of these ride-alongs that T-Bone would often impart advice to me.  Most of the time it was the run-of-the-mill obvious advice like… “Don’t do drugs,” and “Don’t trust the government;” or “stay in school” and “don’t try to outwit the Vietnamese.”

But one day, after no particular prompting, T-Bone said.  “Don’t you ever go to prison, Amy.  You’d never survive it.”

“Whatever,” I said, blowing him off.  “I would never end up in jail T-Bone.”

And I had no reason to believe that I would.  I was enrolled in mostly advanced classes in my high school.  I’d won First Prize giving a presentation on table setting at a 4-H Fair.  I achieved the highest honor awarded in the state drama competition playing the role of Helen Keller.

“Not about doing good or bad,” he said, like he was talking to a mindless rube… ” A person can wind up in the can for any sort of thing.  All I did was flee the United States Military and protest on the steps of a federal building… They hauled me off… But…I did okay in prison.  That’s because I had it in me…  But you…. You’d fail there.  Keep your nose clean  That’s all I’m sayin.  Those prisoners would eat you alive.”

“I’d do fine in prison.” I informed him, offended by such an assessment. “People like me.”

“Yeah, That’s the problem girl. You be Miss Nicety Nice… Talk’n all the time……But in the penitentiary, whoa girl… No ones gonna give you a cookie for acting all Little Miss Muffet… You want to have a  friend in prison?  Pick up the good book and talk to Jesus… Jesus be your only true friend in prison.. He’s nice-and-quiet… Gotta keep to yourself in prison… If you gonna be chatty?… instead of gettin’ a cookie, you best be ready to be the cookie.”

“Whatever,” I told him, taken aback.

“And don’t let anyone give you no prison tattoo.  You’ll end up tied to the White supremacists.”

I promised T-Bone that day that I would never go to prison and I would never join a white supremacist gang.

But something more stuck with me… The idea of keeping to yourself.. Taking things in… Not being too quick to be everybody’s friend.  It was the calculating idea of assessing a situation before running full-force into it.  T-Bone had said it simply, but I used his advice when entering new jobs… When trying something I had never done before, and I found that it worked.

Twenty-five years later… Lost and unsure how to advise my child… I  passed his advice down to my daughter…

While it might not be the most politically correct way to look at childhood… If a person really stands back and takes a long look at the playground… They will see similarities with a prison yard.

I’ve taken T-Bones observations and added a few of my own.  Hope this helps.  I call it:

Prison Rules: 

How to survive elementary school.

1)  Keep to yourself.

This was T-Bone’s first instruction and it still stands.  Keeping to oneself gives a person a chance to assess the situation.  Don’t rush up on people.  It scares them.  WAIT… Don’t force yourself into the Barbie play-a-thon.  Think like a criminal.  Ask your child the same thing I asked my child… What would John Gotti do?  Would he force himself into a game of cartoon tag?  Would the man that the FBI would call “The Teflon Don” ask in a whiney voice… “please guys… let ME be the Red Rover this time…”  NO!!!  John Gotti would NEVER DO THAT!  Neither should your child.  Your child should stand back against the fence… stalking the situation… Teach your child, as I taught mine to walk up to a group of kids with a kind of loose swagger, holding a toothpick in her sweet mouth and say… “You got room for another?”  If the answer is yes,  Joy!  If the answer is no, your child should shrug and say something like.. “No matter to me,” then head back to the fence.


2) Don’t be too chatty.

Wow.  This is a given.  Loose lips sink ships.  Some people… Like experts in the field… will talk about communicating, the sharing of feelings…  Don’t do it!  It’s a terrible idea.  Whenever people start “sharing feelings” that leads to vulnerability, which leads to a knuckle sandwich… Swallow your feelings.  Work them out in therapy later…  But on the playground…  Be quiet.  Silence is fierce.  That’s why all the gurus, Gandhi (also an inmate), Nelson Mandela (did 30 years) value silence.  Silence is golden.  Teach your child to be quiet and watch… Your child will be happier than a child who talks constantly.  Dakota Fanning and her prosaic observations are only funny in the movies.  In real life, they would earn her a good punch.


3) Trade up.


I can’t say enough about this one.  Prisoners who can successfully trade up manage a life of significantly more ease than the ones who can’t.  You have a pack of smokes in prison?  That could get you a full set of toiletries… It’s the same on the playground.  Don’t ever trade a good ham-and-cheese sandwich for a packet of Necco Wafers.  Necco Wafers are THE MOST DISGUSTING CANDY  ever made.  A sandwich should go for no less than three Oreos.  Three Oreos should go for no less than a Snickers.  A Snickers should get your child a hall pass.  Do you understand how this works?  Have you sat down and really watched Good Fellas with your child?  If not, you need to do that.



4) Have a skill.

In prison, having a skill can mean the difference between a cushy job in the prison library and a horrible job cleaning latrines… What can your child bring to the playground that another child can’t?  Can your daughter braid hair?  Better yet… Can she braid a fancy braid like Elsa’s hair in Frozen?  She could become quite a friend magnet if she can do this.  Can your son effectively make arm farts?  Have you taught him that?   That’s a skill every young boy desires.  Will your son one day go to West Point?  It’s skills like this that will pave the way for that path… And if by some chance your son ends up in prison, this will serve him there too.  Prisoners love arm farts.


5) Get busy living or get busy dying.


Alright… T-Bone didn’t give me this one.  I got this one from The Shawshank Redemption.  But… It’s worth saying.  In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne was a man wrongly accused of a crime… But he understood deep in his heart that freedom was something that could be found anywhere.  Bartering for beers while tarring a prison roof… Blasting Opera music out into the prison yard even though it meant time in the hole… Andy Dufresne had the kind of freedom in prison that most people don’t enjoy on the outside.  So should your  child.  It’s all a mindset.

This is good advice on how to survive prison.  It’s also good advice on how to survive school.

I may not be a doctor, or a psychologist, or an expert of any sort… But I am a Blogger.  And I did once have a good friend named T-Bone Jackson.

I’m proud to say… Harper still hasn’t gotten any prison tattoos.