Whenever this country starts to depress me — more and more these days, I’m afraid — I think back a few years to a time in New York City, when I was a social worker. I ran an after- school program for 5- and 6-year-olds. They would line up each day at the bottom of the stairs, then wait until I blew a whistle.

The best part was watching them — when they didn’t know I was watching. It was a diverse group, and I still can see them in line, a black girl with her arms around a white girl, a Chinese boy grabbing the shoulders of the Puerto Rican boy in front of him. They were not embarrassed about their affections, they hugged and kissed, and I remember thinking the obvious, “Wouldn’t it be great if we stayed this way as adults?”

I also remember thinking, “What a shame that, in a few years, they won’t be doing this.”

Now, if some zealots in North Carolina have their way, they won’t be doing it at age 6 either.

I am referring, of course, to the kiss heard ’round the world, 6-year-old Johnathan Prevette, a blond-haired, moon- faced, outgoing little boy. At least he used to be outgoing. Then he pecked the cheek of a girl in his class, and the principal banished him from the classroom.

Johnathan was suspended.

On the grounds of sexual harassment.

Excuse me? Don’t they mean “six-ual” harassment — because all the kid did was act his age. In case these morally indignant North Carolina folks have forgotten, 6-year-olds steal kisses from each other. They yank each others’ hair. They grab each others’ toys. They hold hands in line. They spin around and fall on top of each other.

So what are we saying? Now it’s politically incorrect to be 6? Kids say the right things

Just to remind you what we’re dealing with here, I conducted some random interviews. Not adults. Adults screw things up. I asked kids.

My first subject: a 5-year-old named Daniel. I asked whether he ever kissed a girl in school.

“No way!”

What are the rules about kissing a girl?

“I dunno.”

What would you do if a girl kissed you?

“Yuck!’

Next subject: a 5 1/2-year-old girl named Devon. I asked whether she ever kissed a boy. First she screamed and laughed and bent over and flopped around.

Then she said, “Once. Hahahaha!”

Why did you kiss him?

Another scream. Another flop. “I dunno!”

Third subject: a 7-year-old named Alex. I asked whether he knew what
“sexual harassment” meant. He scrunched up his face and swung his legs off a kitchen counter.

“Huh?” he said.

You get it? This is what we’re dealing with. Children. With children’s innocence — something, if you ask me, we should celebrate while it’s still there. I’m not saying you tell kids to kiss each other all day long. But if little Mary gets pecked on the cheek and complains about it, the teacher can say, “Mary, Johnathan was only showing you that he liked you. But, Johnathan, if Mary doesn’t want to be kissed, then you can’t just kiss her. Understand?”

You know what they call that? Teaching.

You know what they call tossing a 6-year-old out for sexual harassment?

Lunacy. Once again society runs amok

It is worth noting that the little girl in this case reportedly asked to be kissed. So it’s not just Johnathan who’s traumatized, it’s the girl who now realizes something she did caused a friend to get suspended and all these reporters to come swarming in. That’s good for a child’s development, huh?

By the way, a suggestion for Patricia Ireland, the president of NOW, the National Organization for Women, who said of this case “boys who aren’t taught

to respect girls grow up to be workers at the Mitsubishi plant.” Here’s the suggestion: lighten up.

You have to account for age. This kid, Johnathan, in two years won’t want anything to do with girls. In six years, he’ll be shy and awkward around them. Maybe in eight years he’ll get around to kissing another one.

His future sexual behavior would not have been shaped by this kiss. He likely would have forgotten all about it — expect now, he’ll be able to read it in newspaper clippings.

How did we get so morally maniacal? Don’t just blame the schools. They’re only doing what parents demand. Blame the paranoia we’ve developed about “my kids” being influenced by “other kids” with “their ways” and “their behavior.” Everyone is so self-centered, they don’t see the importance of belonging to a bigger society.

I used to see it, every afternoon, in a lineup of happy children in a hallway of a recreation center. I carry that snapshot, black with white, yellow with brown, arm in arm, hand in hand, if only to remind me that life wasn’t always this insane, and maybe one day, it won’t have to be.

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