Defending against (and taking care not to raise) a “mean kid”

Lily, on her first day of kindergarten.

Lily, on her first day of kindergarten.

Lily’s generally had a smooth, easy transition into kindergarten, but in the middle of the night, after maybe only her 3rd or 4th day, she awoke from a bad dream; and when she couldn’t go back to sleep right away, she started to tell me about what a mean older girl had said to her as she waited for the bus after school.

“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.

Oh, sweetie.

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. Continue reading

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Collapsing beneath the weight of kindergarten details

Lily making a "family tree" banner at a school picnic, where - wait for it - I got MORE forms that I didn't read until the night before her first day of kindergarten. Mommy FAIL.

Lily making a “family tree” banner at a school picnic, where I got even MORE forms that I didn’t read until the night before her first day of kindergarten. Mommy FAIL.

I stand on the cusp of a big day in my life as a parent – Lily’s first day of kindergarten – and I’ve been tossing and turning in bed for a few hours now.

This stems, at least in part, from my usual half-assedness. After Lily fell asleep, I skimmed through the bulk of what has been a growing stack of school-related packets and forms, including a calendar of daily activities to do with your child over the summer to prepare her academically for kindergarten (oops!).

And while this last oversight could be forgiven – Lily will shoulder the worldly burden of homework soon enough, so why not let her enjoy a carefree summer? – what’s less forgivable is the realization that, because we’re all so susceptible to the trap of our own experiences and memories, neither her transportation nor her sustenance has been arranged.

Yes, because I so vividly remembered just walking up my street to get picked up by a bus (no registration with the transportation department required), and bringing either my usual peanut butter sandwich/apple bag lunch or cash for hot lunch, I assumed, in the back of my little head, that things would be that simple for Lily, too.

They’re not, of course. Continue reading

Confronting the past, in jack-ass form

On a recent spring day, when it was a little too chilly to spend time outdoors comfortably, Joe, Lily, Neve and I headed to a nearby shopping mall to buy a few gifts. Not long into the trip – which involved going up and down escalators several times (escalators are for Lily, as they were for me as a child, a thrilling amusement park ride) – Lily spotted the play area and made a beeline for it. Neve had fallen asleep in her stroller, so we decided I’d follow Lily while Joe finished his errands with Neve.

I halted Lily at the play area’s entry point, reminding her that she needed to remove her shoes. She asked for my help, so I squatted to pull them off; but in that same moment, I also got that feeling you get when you’re low to the ground and someone moves into your line of vision. I looked up. And when I did, I locked eyes with a man I’d known since he was a not-so-nice young boy in elementary school. He hadn’t lost any of his hair (curses!), but had shaved it down to little more than a shadow; his eyes still had that same condescending, humorless, looking-past-you-to-someone-who-might-matter expression; and in terms of his body, this former football player (of course) looked like he was still in rock solid shape.

The two of us stared at each other a beat or two longer than would complete strangers. I was making absolutely sure he was who I thought he was, and vice versa, while in the same moment, we both made a kind of unspoken pact not to acknowledge each other verbally. Why? We weren’t friends; we weren’t going to be friends; and pretending otherwise achieved nothing. So I finished getting Lily’s shoes off and sent her toward the equipment to play, while I settled into a seat on a nearby bench.

While watching Lily trying to walk along the edge of the play area’s rowboat, as if it were a balance beam, I stole glances at this man and his young son, who kept running to his father to eat a spoonful or two of ice cream from a cup. The man was dressed in dark jeans and a dark shirt that flattered his body, and his boy wore a clean, polished-looking play clothes. I started to spin a tale in my head, wherein this was the man’s only time each week with his son, thanks to a bitter divorce. (Cue it: “And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon…”) But who knows? This storytelling impulse is just something we tend to do when a person who was unkind to us during our childhood has the nerve to age beautifully. Continue reading