This originally appeared on Brigitte Peck’s blog, I am not Super Woman! here.
At first I could convince myself it was normal. Transitioning to middle school is hard. He’s tired. He is giving in to a tendency to exaggerate. Clearly, “everyone” in French class didn’t tell him he is stupid. I’d tell him to go shoot some baskets, eat a snack, and not let people get under his skin.
Then, I convinced myself it was envy. Every day came some anecdote that referenced the “all-stars.” These popular boys had no names but did have girlfriends, were the self-appointed captains for basketball, and didn’t bother following him back on Instagram. He wants to be the best at something. I get that, but I also get genetics and superstar athlete is just not in the cards for him. I reminded him that he has good friends, trying to confer the not-worth-your-energy status on those other boys. I add, “you don’t get to list that you were an 11-year old all-star on your college application,” for good measure.
Next, we moved into the “it’s not you; it’s him” category. This time, there was a name and it was a friend. He would push my son’s books out of his arms, flip his hat off his head, and make off-hand comments he knew would cut. This boy pushed all the right buttons and then quickly followed it up with, “chill out. I’m just kidding.”
“I don’t know how to defend myself,” my son confided in me. “I’m not the kind of kid to fight back and I’m worried I’ll get too emotional if I try telling him to leave me alone, so I just take it.” There it was. He is a nice, sensitive kid and that makes him easy prey. I push the panicky feeling away by reminding myself that it’s just this one kid. It has more to do with how he feels about himself than it does with my son. I know my child can be hard on people. I do not doubt that he could have done something to make his friend feel defensive. I assume there is more to this story than I know. Every child deserves the benefit of the doubt and I was giving it. This too would pass.
I made myself feel better by reaching out to some friends for help. “What should I do?” I asked moms with older boys. Their answers didn’t surprise me. He was going to have to learn to hold his own. He needed to push back. He had to do what he already said he couldn’t – defend himself.
He worked on it. He practiced what he would say or do. He would head out feeling confident. He would come home offering excuses, most of which had to do with not wanting to get in trouble. We told him to get in trouble and we would take care of it. He claimed it was better. I wanted to believe him. I let the tightness in my chest loosen.
Then came the text messages to his dad from the class field trip. They started vague. “I’m just tired of people,” he said. With each reply, my husband asked a new question: “Who?” “What?” “What next?” Unlike before, this time his answers were specific: six or seven boys’ names I didn’t recognize; provoking behavior (flat tires; tapping his shoulder); unkind words (fat, pumpkin, gay); and taunts designed to dare him to respond (“better leave him alone or he’ll freak out.”). You know how this ends. He had enough and lashed out. Now he’s the kid with “anger issues.”
After weeks of telling my son that he would have to respond, he finally does. Then these boys turn his response into one more way to come at him. I cannot explain this away. I have to admit that I have a kind, sweet son who people are mean to. It’s not that they aren’t his friends. It’s that they make it clear that they are not his friends. This is the part that I don’t understand. This is the part that makes me want to lash out and beg parents to tell their children how important it is to be kind.
So, here we are. I’m about to buy a punching bag and download a bunch of books about middle school boys. My son is having a better day. He will have lots of memories from this trip that don’t include others having fun at his expense. He will survive. I will too, but today I am not there.
Today, I am angry. Today, I am hurt. Today, I just wish those kids would leave him alone. Today, I just wish that I could tell those boys that mean people suck and I wish I could tell their parents that when someone is mean to your child, it is worse than you ever imagined. Today, I just wish I could give that kind, sweet boy of mine a hug and tell him that everything is going to be OK.
Let’s do better people. Let’s do better.
After writing the original blog post, Brigitte wanted to add the following: