“Mommy,” Zachary says, “that girl is mean. She teased me about my pants.” His pants, a light linen, are red and white striped, cute and bold, but definitely not effeminate. He points to a little girl who is among the several children from school we have run into at a local playground. They have all been playing together, along with the friend he had come here to meet.
“Well, then, honey, let’s go talk to her.” I take him by the hand, walking over to the offending four-year-old. “Hi. Zach here has something he wants to say. What’s your name, sweetie?”
“Elaine,” she tells me.
“Hi, Elaine. Zach, can you please tell Elaine how you feel when she teases you about your pants?”
He leans back into me, shy about this confrontation. But he looks straight at her. “Sad,” he responds. It is only one word, but it is the first time he has ever directly addressed someone about teasing. Usually, he waits hours, sometimes days, until he mentions to me that someone was unkind. Today, he has come to me, told me immediately, and he has told her how he is feeling.
“So, Elaine, could you please not tease Zach about his pants?” I smile, knowing that she has done nothing worse or better than any child her age, including my own. She seems a little surprised by this conversation, but she agrees before they all run off to play again.
Later, he tells me exactly what she had said. She had said they look like ballet pants, which is strange, as they are loose and flowing. “Maybe she was trying to say something nice,” I offer.
“No, she wasn’t.” He is sure, and I believe him. A kid knows when he has been teased.
Oh, child, I fear this is just the start. You are an individual. You are a boy who likes bright colors, a child who builds things, a thinker. I love those things about you. You also have a very big mouth. And, my love, when you are a little bit off the beaten path, nothing makes you more of a target than calling attention to yourself.
Trust me, I don’t know much, but I know of this. I know how being gregarious and different can draw people. I know that people are like moths and they are pulled into the bright flame. I also know that it will make your differences all that much easier to spot. Baby, if there is one road I have traveled, that is the one.
It doesn’t help that you are very sensitive to the opinions of others. Nothing pleases a teaser more than hitting her mark. It is positive reinforcement of the highest order.
J and I have two roads we could go. We could teach you to assimilate, encourage you to channel those interests into things we think will be acceptable to your peers. We could encourage you to occasionally stop talking, which would, as an added bonus, make things quieter around the house. This is the route my aunt chose with me as a teenager, and it made me feel like doing things my way was wrong. It made me feel like she did not like who I was, which, come to think of it, was probably true.
Or, we could teach you how to face the teasing. Right now, standing up for yourself means telling someone. Hopefully, one day it will mean you whip off a snappy comeback before marching off with your friends.
What I know, as clearly as I know my own past and my own childhood, is that it will never mean it does not hurt. I can tell you to ignore it, that it is their own stupidity. But I can never, ever make you not care.
And so, the next morning, as you pull on pink shorts, we talk. “What do some people think about pink, Zach? Do they think it is for girls or for boys?”
“They think it’s for girls,” he tells me.
“Are they right?” I ask.
“No,” as he picks out orange socks.
“That’s right, because you wear pink. But, sometimes someone might tease you about wearing pink. If that happens, what could you do?”
It does not occur to him to suggest he not wear the color, and far be it from me to put such an idea into his head. “Stand up,” he says, repeating what I have told him.
“And how do you do that?”
“Tell you.” I remind him that he could also tell a teacher, and he nods. Nonetheless, I pick a t-shirt for him. This outfit definitely calls for navy blue.