I was made fun of when I was a kid. I’m not going to say I was bullied because I feel like that’s more extreme than what I endured. But I was made fun of, and believe me I also gave as good as I got. I’m ashamed to think of how I teased other children or worse (when middle school reared it’s ugly head) how I participated in the exclusion of other girls, always with fear that I would be next.
As horrified as I am when I think of these childhood experiences, I am doubly terrified when I imagine my son going through anything similar. Yet I know he will. Kids are mean. It’s part of testing the boundaries to find out who we really are. And hopefully we don’t come out of the process a lifelong asshole (although I think that unfortunately there is a lot of that going around lately).
Some people say kids are meaner now, but I don’t know if I believe that. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think there are just more outlets for the meanness now. When I was a kid, I left school and didn’t see my friends again until the next day. Maybe someone would call me on the landline phone. Or later in my high school years, I chatted on AOL messenger with dial-up internet. But now, kids are in contact with their peers 24/7. And there are so many opportunities to be mean! Facebook, Snapchat, Yik Yak, Kick (I’m trying to sound like I know the hip technology is it working???)
When I was a teenager, I actually participated in a slam book. This was a handwritten notebook filled with insults about my classmates. And my friends and I thought we were sneaky with it, but you know we weren’t! 13-year-old girls are TERRIBLE at being sneaky! So how is this different than cyberbullying? I guess we didn’t intentionally post the comments for the world to see. But it still seems pretty similar to me.
Words hurt. I will never forget the day my 8th grade crush said to me (while trying to crush a bottle cap underfoot) “I bet Kayla could do it.” Wow. I was a chubby, awkward, little girl. And I remember those words 20 years later. Parenting brings out insecurities long buried. We want to prevent our children from suffering these same wounds, but is that ever possible? We try to be aware so that we are not projecting too much of ourselves on our children, but that is so very difficult to do.
My son is a very sweet boy. Ok, I know everyone thinks this about their kid, but it’s really true. My husband says it’s because he has a soft heart made of cookie dough. But the truth is that our son prioritizes positive social interaction above all else. For instance, if he has a toy and another kid approaches him and yanks it away, my kid will proceed to say “Hi!” and try to make friends with the other child with no notice of the stolen toy.
My kid wants you to like him. And if you pay him no attention, he’ll keep trying. He won’t get the hint. And he won’t stand up for himself. We practice at home. We practice that when another child hits him or takes a toy or says something rude to him, he can say “No, I don’t like that!” We role play and I have him repeat it back to me, but I have no idea if he applies it when I’m not around. My best informed guess is that he doesn’t.
I worry about my kid. I worry that he’ll be a forlorn middle-schooler, obsessing over a hurtful comment from a crush. I worry he’ll write nasty comments in an online “slam book.” Or maybe both. And there may be no way for me to control or influence any of it. I guess what I’m wondering is, can empathy be taught? Can I help my son understand how his words and actions might negatively affect others? Or at the very least, can I take the natural kernels of sweetness in my boy and help them grow into something lasting? I really, really hope so. In fact, I’m banking on it.