Mean girls?

            “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.

27 responses to “Mean girls?

  1. It’s a tough one. My Tractor loves boy things–but he loves “feminine” things as well.

    I think all boys do so long as they are allowed to express it.

    I don’t make a big deal about it at all. If he chooses pink, so be it.
    Pink is just a color (is what I always say to the Husband)

    A nice one, at that. 🙂

  2. ah, little Zach.

    as far as teasing goes if it’s not pink shorts it’s something else. I tried to assimilate in my elementary years and I was still teased. It’s hard to avoid, I’m afraid.

    but how you’re teaching him to cope? It’s the best way to go about it.

  3. you have educated not only Zach, but Elaine, and that’s what’s best about your method. In a perfect world, I picture it catching on like a chain of lighted dominoes, each bumping the other with a little “aha” of empathy.

  4. Well written account of what happens to all parents in different ways with their children. I hope all of us choose to teach them to stand up for themselves rather than hide who they are.

  5. I was very touched by this. It’s so wonderful to read about how Zachary expresses himself. And learning ways to deal with teasing is such a valuable thing.

  6. ah mama…nicely done there. nicely done.

  7. You handled it with grace and compassion, which helped not only Zach, but I suspect little Elaine, as well.

    You took charge kindly but firmly, yet let the children work it out. You encouraged Zach to stand up for himself. The fact that he’s made so much progress, evidenced by his telling you right away? That is solid gold right there. It’s working.

    Parenting: UR doin’ it right. 🙂 Way to go, Mom.

  8. Must you always make me cry? Yes, it seems that you must. Zach is one lucky kid. A lot of kids like him don’t have parents like you on their side. (And by “kids like him” I just mean kids who march to the beat of their own bagpipes.)

  9. First, I love that he wore the pink anyway. I like a kid who is a leader and not a follower. I talk to my boys about this all the time, especially my oldest who, at 13, is suddenly convinced he will be a pariah if he doesn’t wear all the most trendy clothing and shoe brands, or if his hair is not exactly so.

    Second…it’s wonderful that you are giving him the tools now to deal with teasing. I’m afraid it just gets worse and by middle school, it’s absolutely brutal. A kid who has an idea of how to handle teasing will fare much better than a kid who is completely unprepared.

    Also, most bullies are really just big cowards and usually all it takes is a confrontation much like the one you had with the little girl. They never expect anybody to call them on their behavior. Once it’s made clear that someone will, it’s usually enough to get them to stop, at least at that age.

    Good job, Mom.

  10. My Male Child is an extrovert and a noise box and quite often very, very different. But he lived through two years of a school where anything different was vilified (and one of his biggest difference was racial – what, could he put on a different skin??) and now happily cops to being “weird” and is accepted and liked by all sorts simply because he accepts and likes himself. Zach is already well on his way. Well done.

  11. Ooof. Just last night I was talking with my husband and SIL about how very very mean kids are – they were suggesting that “mean” isn’t even the word for it these days. My heart hurts when I think of the years that lie in store for our kids…

  12. I got so tired of my mom telling me to “just ignore them.” I am glad you are teaching him how to handle this.

  13. Very well handled!
    I have tried to help my daughter handle the teasing from different angles. Not so much about her choice in clothes, but in toys. She has always loved whatever toys her brother had. Cars, Dinosaurs, digging in the dirt, these things she preferred to baby dolls, etc. Her favorite color is blue (right now she hates pink) and hates to wear dresses.

    When he was younger, our son did play with the baby dolls from time to time as well. We never told the children that any of there toys belonged to one gender or the other.

  14. This is where the twin thing is really working for us (them, really). I mostly think of S & C as being so entirely different, but the truth is that they are far more alike each other than they seem to be with their peers– if only they could go to school with Zachary. No matter what disagreements they have at home, C & S have each other’s backs. If one is feeling hurt from being teased, the other is quick to stand up to the teaser and to comfort his brother. Of course, I’m all for the boys articulating their own needs to others– but how great is it that it comes naturally to them to stand up for their brother/s.

    And we’ll see how this plays out in their own classrooms this school year as we’ve made the decision to separate them…

  15. You’ve said everything. You handled this beautifully.

  16. Zach is such a cool kid! He’s lucky he got parents who celebrate how cool he is, rather than trying to make him more like everyone else!

  17. I loved your posting — I just came across your site today. Bullying is something very close to me and my family. My nephew was bullied at 12-13 and there were very sever consequences. I’m sharing the website my brother created in his memory. Hope this is helpful to all parents.

  18. he really is a singular little creature

  19. this is when i think it’s harder to raise a boy than a girl.

  20. I can still remember the random cruelty of children and I never ever got used to it. I think you are absolutely right to get Zach in touch with his natural aggression. I don’t mean that he’ll lay into someone, just that it feels right to him to fight right back. Psychoanalytic research suggests that children who do not actively feel their vulnerability are unlikely to attract hostile attention. So good on you, and good on him.

  21. My RAmekin is particularly fond of orange… not to mention his red wellies with hearts on them. I like your approach to dealing with teasing… I suspect I may need to use such an approach someday in the near future.

  22. ahh. the sensitivity to others’ opinions. my Six is that way.

    the problem, as i see it, is that that sensitivity can so easily lead them to be super-conforming.

    (it’s what i did when i was a kid.)

    how to keep that social sensitivity, which is a prescursor to emotional maturity, without conforming!

    there’s the trick. and it’s a tough one.

  23. No easy answers as parents. We just keep doing the best we can to support our kids and teaching them to stand up for themselves in a healthy way in a great way to show our support.

  24. Oh, your sweet boy. I love how you handled this, the confrontation with the teasing girl, and the way that you talked with him while he was dressing.

  25. My little guy (5 yrs old) is super sensitive to that kind of thing as well and lately I’ve begun teaching him that humor is the best way to handle that. It’s not that the comment doesn’t hurt, but that if you can make light of it, it doesn’t have as much power over you. It’s also very disarming for the person doing the teasing. If they were trying to offend and they realize they cannot, they don’t continue to do it so much. In addition, if you can make the offender laugh, you can often make a friend out of someone who might otherwise become an enemy.