Apr 9 2011

Standing Up

“Four bad things happened today,” Short-pants announced when I went to pick her up at school one day last week.

I resisted the urge to re-direct her to what was good about the day – an evaluation method I use in my profession suggests a thorough inventory of the positives before listing the concerns – instead, I let her tell me everything she wants to tell me, in whatever order she preferred. I want her to develop the habit of confiding in me. Correcting her syntax about how she reports the day’s events won’t help to keep the channel open. We’re still years away from her sullen adolescence, but I’m planting any seeds I can.

The liabilities of the day were not so grave, for an adult. She even seemed to have them in perspective. They annoyed rather than upset her, although the boundary between those two territories is rather thin. Somebody – a boy who often picks on her – was pulling on her hood as they climbed the stairs. When she turned to ask him to please stop he gave her the French shrug: “I didn’t do anything.”

Later in the lunch line, two girls behind her tapped her on the shoulder, and when she turned around, acted as if they’d never touched her. “It bothered me,” she said, “that they would actually think I didn’t know it was them.”

And so it begins. I’ve suspected she’s a target for teasing. And since teasing often leads to bullying, I wonder if that’s possibly what’s ahead.

The other two incidents were equally benign (and probably normal) on the scale of mean things kids do to each other, but the accumulation of wasted gestures and silly pretending put Short-pants in a bad mood.

“Why do they pick on you?” Buddy-roo asked later, when we were talking about it at dinner. “Because I’m an outlier, a bit of a loner,” she answered, matter-of-factly. I regarded her with that mixture of pride and confusion. How amazing that she can so coolly describe herself, and how does she know that about herself?

“Papa told me I might get teased a little and that would be why.” I’m glad she talks to De-facto about it, too. She’s getting feedback from two genders of sounding board.

A few months ago I purchased a book and tucked it into my closet, waiting for the day that it would seem relevant to pass on to her. This felt like it was the right day. Despite the fact that it is from the American Girl franchise, one that’s over-the-top merchandising horrifies and impresses me at once, it is a well-conceived text. Straight forward, plain language, esteem-building advice for young girls about bullying, being bullied or just observing the act. Short-pants is a bookish type, you can talk to her about anything, but if she sees it in a book, it reaches some understanding place deeper inside of her than simple conversation can penetrate. So whenever I want to help her out, or make a point, I find a book about it.

She read the title of the book, Stand up For Yourself and Your Friends, and squealed with delight, “American Girl!” She cares little about the dolls and their accessories but has devoured the books – which contain great stories portraying how girls in other generations have grown up. She ran upstairs and I didn’t hear from her for over an hour. She read the whole book in one sitting. And then read it again. She came downstairs standing tall and empowered.

I have been waiting – obviously, since I bought a book about it – for the days when Short-pants would be teased at school. There have been a few incidents, the perpetrator always one of a handful of predictably mischievous boys. But what disturbs me is that maybe the girls are starting now to pick on her, and when pre-adolescent girls start, they get worse. And when they get mean, they get mean.

Up until now, the fact that she’s so sweet and kind and a little quirky has seemed to amuse her classmates as much as us. She is a loner, but not because other kids didn’t ask her to play. She often refuses their invitations, opting to wander around the school courtyard on her own, making up her own poems and rhymes, plunging into her rich inner life. But there you find the catch-22. As she refuses, repeatedly, they cease to ask her. And the less she is “with” them, the greater the odds that they will turn “against” her.

Whether kids are the most popular in class, the geek, the jock, the brainiac, the chatterbox (that would be Buddy-roo) or the loner, there is no way to protect them from the backlash of their particular role. The popular kids will be envied and bad-mouthed, the jocks adulated in person but derided behind their back for their “lesser” intelligence, the geeks ignored but stereotyped nonetheless. Protection is useless; it’s even counter-productive. The trials of childhood graduate to those of adolescence and prepare us for the occasional cruelties of life. How else would we thicken our skin?

I know I can’t protect her. But I can help her to be prepared, and I guess that’s what I’m trying to do. The question is, how do I prepare myself?