I was chatting with an old friend today who also has small children about the immense responsibility of raising children who are kind. I was a very awkward little kid and was picked on somewhat relentlessly in elementary and middle school. I had very little self-awareness, and spoke my mind with no real filter (apparently not much has changed on that front), and this did not do me any favors early in life.
Fortunately, my coping mechanisms were never at all related to violence, and were not particularly self-destructive. Around the time I turned 13, I just started trying to teach myself to model and conform to others around me; and to act like, and therefore blend in with, everyone else. I enjoyed being more or less invisible in high school, and then as soon as I moved out for college, became completely bored with my bland self. For the past 12 years I have embraced the weird, surrounding myself with people who at least tolerate the weird and pretend to find it mildly endearing (like, for example, anyone who ever stumbles upon this blog once, and then makes the decision to at some point return to read again), and in the last several years have become more-or-less, as the saying goes, comfortable in my own skin.
This methodical practiced conformity though that defined my years in high school, is probably one of the single most useful life skills that I have ever acquired. I can turn the “normal and generic” version of me on and off as necessary, which is primarily in professional situations. (And for anyone I work with who happens to be reading this, thinking “Normal? Like hell you are, freak.” – I mean normal in interviews, and meetings, and stuff. As soon as I walk out of the conference room and back into my office, I settle right back into the weird. And since several of you recently bought me my very own beef pizzle, I venture to say you are inifinitely weirder than me. Which is probably why I love working with all of you so much :) I am so thankful for those years of practicing “normal” because who I was up until that point would have been very restricted and limited in the real world.
Now that I have two small children of my own, tiny clean slates of snow-white innocence, I have a lot of anxiety about how their personalities will define them socially. In a world where being teased mercilessly leads to devastating self-harm and horrific acts of violence, it makes my years of calculated practice at simply being unawkward and invisible seem like a much simpler time.
Recently at a large children’s get-together, my sweet little four year old Stumps sat down to eat lunch with two six year old girls. After about five minutes, the older girls started whispering to eachother, got up from the table, and moved across the room, leaving my precious preschooler sitting all alone. She picked up her plate, came over to my table, climbed into the chair beside me, and said “They don’t want to sit with me.”
After piecing back together the fragments of my shattered mommy heart, I have been turning this over in my mind for days. How should my little Stumps have addressed this? How should I have addressed this to protect Stumps’ sweet little soul without helicoptering, or worse, getting directly involved. How do I raise my little girls to not ever be the ringleader “mean girls” who conspire to get up and abandon another child at an empty table? To be kind, understanding, and genuine to everyone – even the weird, the awkward, the outcasts. And yet how do I raise them to be strong, to not be cluelessly easy targets like I was so many years ago, to not be the victims? To be neither the bully, nor the bullied?
It hurt me deeply to see Stumps left out like that, even though she is only barely old enough to even be self-aware enough to at all internalize it and take it personally. Other parents, please chime in. I just don’t even know where to begin. How are you developing your child’s social and emotional intelligence? How does this change as they age? What suggestions do you have? I want to protect both of my girls from the harshness of the post-pre-school world, and though this world will inevitably and unfairly be cruel to them at times, I want to preserve the purity of their kind, unblemished souls.