This morning when I was dropping off my little guy at school, I watched as he spotted a couple of kids across the room and froze. His pale little face went paler and his expression, once calm and happy, went blank. It was as if a switch shut off; he shut down with no warning. My blood went cold as I followed his gaze and tried to decipher what had just transpired. Another teacher saw his reaction too, and we repeatedly prodded him to tell us what was wrong.
Getting no response, and knowing he was safe, I knew I had to let it go and let him go. Had I not known this on my own, his body language told me loud and clear I need not hover. This decision did not come lightly though, and was not without some grueling self-reflection. Whatever had happened could wait until the end of the school day, when I would interrogate him mercilessly until he spilled. He is getting older, I know, and must learn to handle some things himself.
It gnawed at me all day. Is he okay? Did I make the right call? It turns out that in this case, I did, and to do otherwise would have encouraged coddling and helped to slow his emotional growth.
I later learned the root of his displeasure: He overheard a girl innocently take note that my son drew freckles on his face in the self-portrait that each student colored and hung on the school wall. I have failed to mention that my son is also extremely sensitive and mind-bogglingly self-conscious about his looks. While I adore his red hair, pale skin and freckled cheeks, it makes him want to hide. I tell him all the time that the girls adore the cuteness of his looks. It doesn’t matter, though, because kids perceive what they will about themselves and their situation.
My son does not get bullied, but he is – obviously – sensitive, and also does occasionally get teased. And when he does get teased or left out, it stings – bad. Occasionally, a popular kid will tell him he can’t sit next to him, play kickball or other sport of the day because he is “not as good as the other boys” (rubbish), or other such nonsense. Like most other kids, he is sometimes excluded from play dates and party invitations.
He is only in second grade. Our other son has not even reached grade school yet. I was unprepared for this childhood teasing, though I must have remembered on some level that these days would come, as they did for me. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the emergence of a pecking order so soon, or a swagger, or an “in” crowd.
It would be the understatement of the century to say that hearing stories about my child being teased, left out, or otherwise slighted makes me sad. It leaves me devastated. I want to take him in my arms and harbor him so he can always feel love and never hurt by cruel words again. How can my sweet little boy, my own flesh and blood, ever be anything but cherished by the rest of mankind? It’s a common parental reaction, and in a perfect world, kids would never be anything but cherished by their peers all the time.
But, human nature is what it is, and childhood is a prime training ground for learning to control the less desirable parts of human nature. Kids are learning – hopefully – to reject nastiness and gossip, and to be, simply, kind. In the meantime, kids are also learning how to handle situations where there is no kindness. It’s no easy feat.
Navigating the world of cruelty, self-consciousness and outright bullying makes the job of a parent even harder – even when it looks easy. In this case, today, I made the right call when I walked away, leaving my son to sort through this perceived slight. But, had it not turned out this way, (and unbeknownst to me he was in fact being bullied), I could have left him in a lurch and may not have found out the truth about his situation. It could have taken months or years to learn the extent of the taunting. Because we know he does in fact get teased once in a while, the possibilities in my mind are endless!
Until they are parents themselves, my kids will never guess the extent of self-reflection that goes into each of their trials and tribulations in the schoolyard and beyond. They do not understand that failing to act is not a failure to “act,” but rather a conscious decision to give them the tools to act for themselves.
In fact, sometimes I think it is just as hard to be the parent, because these very decisions about how to handle teasing and the like can dog you if you call it wrong.
How can you really tell when to stay the course and teach your child how to deal with it, and when to involve the school? And, if involving the school, how can you be reasonably assured that you are not setting your child up for being labeled the “tattletale” over something that – in the end – could have easily been handled at a lower, more discreet, level. And, most importantly, how can you determine, before your child gets unreasonably hurt by it all, that your initial decision is the right one?
Some may argue that any form of teasing requires third party involvement from a higher authority, but what kind of ill-prepared human beings will we raise if we seek authority every single time an unkind word is launched in our child’s direction and every time a slight occurs? Surely, they would emerge from childhood ill-equipped for even the slightest confrontations, thereby setting them up for a greater failure than from that which we originally protected them.
I will continue to keep on “keeping on,” watching for signs of deeper problems, questioning my son to learn more about his day and his friendships, tapping into the school to get a better understanding of how he fares socially, and being vigilant to ensure his general well-being. But, I will also give him the room he needs to work some things out on his own, while providing him the tools to do so. In the end, hopefully, he will grow up to be strong and confident.
When my youngest enters school, I will do the same for him. If – God forbid – they ever do encounter a bully, it is a solace to know there is added protection through the law and school. Still, although it’s true that life experiences offer many opportunities for learning and growth, I pray that they are forever shielded from this one.