“She said my teacher was Mrs. Ugly,” Lily said, starting to cry. “And she said I jump like this.” Lily climbed down from her bed and stood, tossing her arms up while her feet just barely left the ground.
Though my outgoing girl is brave in many ways – she climbed the steps of a 12-foot inflatable slide by herself shortly after turning 2 – she’s about as thick-skinned as a paper doll (as are nearly all boys and girls her age, of course).
And as we all acknowledge, with a slow-boiling dread, the big, bad world is not for the faint of heart, and sending your little one out into that world for the first time is a profound, if inevitable, act of trust.
Which is to say, you best not mess with my little girl, world. But more on that later.
“Lily, your teacher is brand new to your school this year,” I said. “So the girl who said this to you, she doesn’t even know Mrs. M. She probably has no idea what she even looks like. So she’s just calling her Mrs. Ugly to upset you. Same with the jumping thing. This girl doesn’t know what you’re capable of. She doesn’t know anything about you – how well you can paint and draw, and what a great big sister you are, all that stuff. She’s saying these things without knowing what she’s talking about, which means they’re meaningless.”
“But why did she say those things?”
“Well, that’s a hard question. I don’t know why she was mean to you. Sometimes people are mean because they don’t feel good about themselves, and they feel better if they pick on someone else. Sometimes they’re upset about something that has nothing to do with you, but they feel angry and they take it on you. At work, I get people who say mean things to me sometimes, too.”
Lily shifted gears and got concerned on my behalf all the sudden. “Who’s mean to you? What do they say?”
My heart melted even more. Even in Lily’s own moment of distress, she felt protective of me.
“Oh, kiddo, you don’t have to worry about me. Really. It’s just that part of Mommy’s job is saying what I think about the shows I see, and sometimes, when someone disagrees with me, or feels hurt, they get angry and write something mean. But you know what I do when that happens? I write a message back, and I’m as polite and as nice as I can be. And then the person either writes back, and is much nicer, or I never hear from them again. Either way, it’s like the mean words they said just sprout wings and fly away, and I forget about them. So you don’t have to worry about me. It doesn’t hurt me anymore.”
But getting to that point takes practice and time and maturity, of course. And I remembered only too well how my own mom repeatedly told me to ignore kids who teased me – and how impossible and useless that advice felt. Now, of course, being on the other side of the parental divide, I understand the allure and logic of the suggestion; but frankly, logic goes out the window when trying to re-enter the mental world of childhood. Telling a child to ignore taunts is like telling her to hold her breath. She’ll only last a few seconds before the barriers break.
So I told her that I realized that ignoring mean kids is really, really hard, and that maybe instead, she could just say to them, “I don’t care what you think,” and hope that saying it would help make it true.
Or she could tell an adult what was happening.
Or, if she’s being physically bullied, and there’s not an adult around to intervene, she should stand up for herself and fight back. (A few weeks later, we also talked about making a joke of what someone says about you. Like, in the case where a boy called her a potty – I know, I don’t know where these bizarre insults come from, either, but they hurt her nonetheless – I told her she could say something like, “You’re not going to poop on me, are you?” That’s mom-of-the-year material right there, yes? Pure gold. You’re welcome, dear reader.)
As Lily grew calmer and less agitated, I reminded her, too, that she should never be a person who says mean things to someone else. That, in fact, if she saw someone getting picked on, she should try her best to stop it, even though that’s a tough thing that demands a lot of courage.
She finally fell back to sleep. And I returned to my own bed, wanting to mete out my own version of Mommy justice to the older girl who hurt my Lily-bug (as well as to the two boys who seemingly bond by way of teasing her), despite my otherwise conflict-averse nature. Such is the deep-seated instinct of a mama/papa bear.
But I needn’t have worried.
At the bus stop the next morning, Lily walked up to one of the boys’ mothers and said, “He was mean to me on the bus.”
And a few minutes later, when the two boys started to give her a hard time, she yelled, “I don’t care what you think!”
That’s my girl. (She was really, really listening during our talk, apparently.)
But lest we all get too caught up too quickly in the “my child is a victim of bullying” mindset, I’ll note that just a few nights later, after a make-up swim class, Lily did something really obnoxious. Something that reminded me that kids who are bullied have the same capacity to be mean, too.
While starting to walk away from the pool, Lily realized she had the school’s goggles still in her hand. “Go give them back to your teacher, please,” I said.
Lily walked to the edge of the pool, where her teacher expectantly held out her hand.
And then Lily flung the goggles over her teacher’s head and into the water.
Grrrrr. After making her apologize to the teacher, I explained to Lily, through gritted teeth, why this gesture crossed the line between playfulness and nastiness.
But the moment forced me arrive at this conclusion: like adults, young kids have the capacity to be kind as well as mean. We have to expect both tendencies to appear regularly; the trick is, as much as possible, we have to reinforce the positive stuff, and curb the occasional, inevitable jerk move.
With any luck, learned empathy will come with time.
And with Lily, there are already real signs of hope.
For I recently volunteered to lead groups from her class on a school-wide alphabet scavenger hunt. A boy from her group had to stop to use the restroom, and we advanced a little further down the hall while waiting for him. When he re-appeared, Lily told me, “I’ll go bring him back, Mommy. You can wait here.”
Lily walked toward the boy – a boy she’d only met a few weeks before, in a class of 24 – and reached for his hand. He accepted it without hesitation, and they walked toward me, hand-in-hand.
I hugged Lily, told her I was proud of her, and kissed her on the head.
But make no mistake. I’m still on jerk-move watch, too; and I will be for years and years to come.