The phone rang yesterday evening. It was one of Big Girl’s classmates’ moms. One of the five or so I called on Election Day when my mom, my sitter, called in sick, and I was looking to do a playdate. We chatted. She apologized for not calling sooner. We talked about a bat bake sale that the kids recently hosted. We chatted about the teachers. We chatted about a recent field trip. That’s when I ran into problems. “Oh, I feel so bad about what happened with [Big Girl] yesterday.” My mommy radar went on full alert. What did she mean, I asked. “You know, about what happened with R.” I sighed. R. again. The little girl who, since the beginning of the year, has been the bane of my existence. The little girl who, because she is fighting with L. (who is one of my daughter’s close friends from last year), decided to latch on to Big Girl. (Right now my daughter is a prize, as the teacher explained. Something R. can lord over L.)
I sat there listening as the classmate’s mom told me how, on the field trip, Big Girl had tried sitting down next to R., who promptly snapped, “I don’t want you sitting next to me!” (Oh, did I mention that R. likes to manipulate my daughter? Being nice sometimes, mean others?) We finished our conversation, the classmate’s mom telling me how, when she saw it happening, she went over and stuck up for Big Girl, telling R. that she wasn’t being nice. I listened but all the while I was distracted. Why didn’t Big Girl tell me about the issue? Why didn’t she trust me? When I thought about it, I figured out why. I’m so sensitized to bullying and people being unkind that I want to jump up and slay every R. who says boo to my daughter.
When I was in grade school and junior high I got picked on. A lot. I used to come home with stories. How this one said that to me, and that one called me something else. How a few of the teachers were even unkind to me. I would come home looking for help, but my mother always told me I needed to deal with what was going on myself. That I needed to stick up for myself. (I can’t blame her. A widow at 35, she had three kids and two jobs. She needed someone to stick up for her, too, but no one was around.) And so I grew to hate school more and more. It got so bad that –because my mom left for work around 7, so we had to get ourselves to school — some days I simply stayed home. I rationalized that it was easier dealing with the yelling at home than dealing with the teasing in school.
But Big Girl isn’t going through what I went through. Not by a long shot. She’s in a great school, and she has plenty of friends. That’s why I know the protecto-mode strategy I often go into isn’t the right one. I know it in my head anyway. Any therapist would say the only way Big Girl is going to learn how to be strong against an obvious bully like R. is to be hurt by her. You can’t learn to avoid pain if you never feel it. And by rescuing Big Girl whenever she’s about to be hurt, I’m preventing good-for-her pain. I am the person I am today not in spite of, but because of those mean kids who tortured me in school. I have a lot of great friends now because I know what a good friend looks like. And trust me, it took me a while to learn. Heck, it even took me a while to learn how to be a good friend because I was so used to being hurt, I often sabotaged relationships.
Unfortunately, knowing all this doesn’t stop me from wanting to gather Big Girl into my arms every morning, and put her into a special bubble. A bubble that protects her against barbs and criticisms, against I-don’t-want-you-to-sit-heres and wow-your-glasses-are-funny-lookings. And the many, many worse things, that as a little girl growing up in today’s world, Big Girl is going to hear. I have to find a happy medium. I have to find a way to help her without smothering her. I have to give her advice without telling her what to do. I have to let her get hurt so she can figure out which girls are the ones she should be friends with, and which ones are the bitches. (Sorry R.’s parents: Your daughter is acting like a bitch. And yes, I am aware how mean it is to call a 6-year-old a bitch.)
That’s why, last night as I tucked her into bed, I told her that I was going to butt out from now on unless she wanted my help. I told her that I wanted to hear about when she got hurt, but I also promised that if she did confide in me, I wouldn’t say anything. I’d just listen. She could trust me and let me be there for her, I said. And then I explained why I was so quick to dismiss people who were unkind to her: Because I love her so much my heart feels like it’s going to explode when I think about her getting hurt. She put her arms around my neck, pulled me close, and kissed my nose. Five times. And then she snuggled down and closed her eyes. And so I am here putting my vows in writing so I have to keep my own promises. As much as it hurts me. I’m going to let her get hurt. (But I don’t promise I’m going to like it.)
Were you ever bullied as a child? Were you a bully? How has it affected who you are as an adult? How has it affected the way you parent? I’d love to hear about your experiences.