The fears that I have for myself in this world do not begin to compare to the fears I carry for my children. The truth is I really don’t like fear. I typically don’t engage in fear-promoting activities like watching scary movies. Or jumping out of planes. Especially since I became a mother. I don’t like the unexpected. It’s uncertain. And nerve wracking. It makes me feel a little hopeless. Or maybe helpless. Fear grabs the wheel in my head and turns my thoughts in a direction I don’t like to go. I feel kind of trapped. And I just want out of the worry-filled, overthinking, false predicting, pseudo-powerful fearmobile.
I worry for my kids, as I imagine every parent does. Sometimes my worries come from a place of experience, like my own experiences as a kid. Things I did. Things I saw. Or things that happened to me. Sometimes my fears come from hearing other parent’s painful stories. Just today a friend told me how classmates would regularly put trash in her daughter’s lunch. In kindergarten. I know I can’t bubble wrap, stand guard or hover over my children. I’ve learned when they leave my home, there are great unknowns past the front door and down the hill. And so I do a little worrying from time to time. I worry about the power of their peers’ words to rattle their emotions and shake their self-confidence. And I think I worry for good reason. One of my boys didn’t want to wear the tail on his costume to school because he said, “I think kids will laugh at it.” This stopped me in my breakfast making tracks. And it kind of pissed me off. A lot.
Because I know. Because I’ve heard the stories. Because I’ve been there when a child couldn’t take the pain of being bullied anymore. I’ve talked to beautiful kids, life-filled kids of all ages who have confessed that they have no friends. And I’ve believed them. I’ve experienced the awkward pause, the silence when I ask kids questions about school and friends. I’ve heard the gut-punching answer slowly and sadly escape, “Nobody likes me” or “I don’t have any friends.” I worry when my own children come home and tell me playground stories of children being cruel. I worry about the other kids. The victims. And I worry about my own. The bystanders. “It’s too soon, they’re too young,” I think. I feel like we’ve been thrown in deep waters and my kids are still doggy paddling. Sometimes, I learn it’s the most “popular” children. Yuck. And this is first grade. This hurts my heart in a way that is hard to handle in a calm, level-headed rational way.
It’s hard to not get angry. It’s hard not to march through the doors of the school and demand better. To be honest, I know my children have witnessed unkind behavior outside of the school walls, even from me before. I know I’m far from, dare I even type the word, perfect. Parenting is hard. Really. Really. Hard. And demanding. And life-sucking at times. But I know if our children are not learning how to treat one another with respect, kindness, love and forgiveness at home, will they even recognize or embrace these lessons elsewhere? Or will they bounce right off of their fake tough skin? Coloring a worksheet is not going to change hearts, attitudes or minds. I know if I’m not teaching my children to accept and appreciate diversity at home, the school counselor’s lesson may fall on plugged ears.
Somehow, I keep having to help my children understand really difficult lessons. After school. Lessons learned from kids acting in cruel and intentionally unkind ways. Honestly, like little punks. And unfortunately, I’m not blindfolded to the misbehaved and unkind adults that exist in this world too. I’m well aware of the deep cutting power of nasty looks or hurtful words. The excluding attitudes. Fake nice grown-ups. Or just plain mean ones. So naturally I think about kids’ home lives. I understand that kids may be the recipients of mean words and unloving treatment. They may be under appreciated, unheard and disrespected in the place where these lessons matter the most.
One of the most intentional reasons I drive my kids to parks and playgrounds all over town is because I hope that my kids will to learn to play, include and get along with kids everywhere. Not just on our street. In our neighborhood. Or at our church. A few months ago, one of my boys got called a “butthead” by another kid at one our favorite playgrounds. My son ran over to me visibly upset and told me what happened. He asked this boy if he could move from blocking the slide so he could go down. The boy didn’t want to move, I assume, so he called my son a “butthead.” And stayed right where he was. The boy probably got the reaction he hoped for, since my son came over to me in tears, asking me through labored crying breaths if I was going to go talk to his mom. I didn’t see this boy’s mom or dad around and I didn’t plan on addressing this name-calling episode with a complete stranger. I told my son maybe he could play in a different area. (Later, when that kid was throwing rocks at my kids and other kids, I did address him in a calm yet firm tone.)
When we got home from the park, I thought of something I could show my boys to explain what happened using nature, specifically a fish’s defense mechanism. We talked about how the boy didn’t want to move from the slide, so he puffed up. Like a pufferfish. I showed them a video of a pufferfish getting agitated then blowing up. I explained that some kids and adults don’t like being asked to do something they don’t want to do, so they get mad. They puff up. Call people names. Push. Shove. Try and make themselves look bigger. My boys wanted to watch the video of the pufferfish blowing up over and over again. Thanks, YouTube. So, now I can say,”remember the pufferfish?” It helps to know that sometimes you just have to leave some kids and people alone. They’re gonna puff up. No matter what.
The truth is a lot of times I hope and try to help my kids understand why things happen or why people may act a certain way. But I’m at a loss for words sometimes especially when it comes to people’s behavior. It seems to me like we’re all on the same team. Team Human Beings. Sometimes, we just don’t know how to accept and appreciate the many different roles we all play. We’re all working towards some pretty complicated goals like the feelings of belonging, acceptance, and being unconditionally loved. These come easier for some than others. I realize that I can be an example of acceptance, love, strength, and hope for my kids in the walls of our home, our van, and any other place they are with me. They’re watching me. Listening to me. Learning from me. Especially at the most unlikely times, when I may not even recognize it. Until a later time when they bring up that something they saw or heard me say. Or do. It’s quite unnerving to physically feel the loss of control that accompanies your children growing up and experiencing both the beauty, the good, the ugly and painful of this world. Without you there carrying them or walking by their sides. Shielding them, when possible from some of the pain their little hearts aren’t prepared for. Not yet. But will they ever be?
When I’m up late thinking about how much it hurts to know that my son sat crying at his desk because of false accusations of kids in his class, I have these slow sad, yet motivated and passionate tears that urge me to do something. For my son. And for other children not equipped to handle tough peer situations. What can I teach my son from this, besides the fact that sometimes kids and people will be mean and cruel? I can build my son back up. Speak truth into his tiny ears. I can try to explain kids’ behavior. I can teach him how to be the one that encourages others, looks out for others. And I can continue to teach him empathy. It’s hard because what I really want is for this not to happen. Ever. But especially not in first grade. And I want to have a conversation with a parent or bring that kid to my house and teach him how to love, respect and care for others. Repeatedly. Until he gets it.
I dropped my son off at school today and I watched him walk up the steps inside as sat in my van. He waved at me. I couldn’t see the hallways that lie ahead. I couldn’t be there to build him up if someone’s words broke him down. That’s really hard. But I have to make a choice. We won’t let the unkind, cruel people win. I know that I have to keep teaching my children about who they are and about the phenomenal gifts that they possess, despite what any child may say or do to shake their confidence. I believe that it is our job to invest in our children’s emotional intelligence. We have to be conscious and go out of our way to be kind, loving, accepting, forgiving and compassionate towards one another. Little eyes are always watching. Learning and growing. It’s our responsibility to provide the curriculum of our kid’s home lives.
In our house, we will not let unkindness alter us and we won’t let fear win. Or people who puff up. They will not get to determine or influence our thoughts, actions or the decisions we make in regards to what’s best for our children and their future. Our end goal in raising our kids is to put more grown-up human beings out into the world that love on, care for and help others. Because this world is good, beautiful even but it’s also hard and complicated. And we need each other. We all need the high fives, the hugs, and the encouraging chants. We need to recognize that we’re all wearing the same colors on the inside.