One of the amazing traits in young children is their seemingly universal acceptance of each other. I love watching toddlers and pre-schoolers interact with each other. The playmates could be tall, short, wide, thin, purple, blue or green – it just doesn’t matter. They are not yet tainted by any form of prejudice or unreasonable biases. They operate on a philosophy of “If I get mad at you and cry, it is because you took one of my toys or I need a nap. Otherwise you are A.O.K. in by book.”
Flash forward to the pre-teen and teen years. That innocence starts to fade, and the kids start to form opinions, right or wrong, about each other. Middle school in particular is a cesspool of hormones, emerging individualities and tests of self confidence. Groups and cliques begin to form. The good news is strong friendships begin and can last through their lifetimes. The bad news is universal acceptance is no longer the norm. Granted, you couldn’t pay me to be 13 again. Well, unless of course, I could be 13 and already armed with what I know now.
As a general rule, most young teens are not inherently “bad” kids. As a matter of fact, most are pretty amazing. They are just struggling to find their way in the transition from little kid to young adult, forming their personalities and interests that will carry them through high school and beyond. Naturally I’m biased, but my son is pretty awesome. He’s smart, funny, and overall a really good kid. Our biggest issue with him, like so many others, is his apparent addiction to electronic screens of all kinds. And, like all others in his age range, he’s becoming a “typical teen.” He gets moody and mopey from time to time, doesn’t want to do his chores, finds humor in things we just don’t understand, and can’t possibly consume enough food in one day. I had to laugh recently when he posted “ Rules of My Room” on his bedroom door, most of which involved his privacy and could we PLEASE remember to close his door when we exit.
Despite the ever changing teen attitude, we noticed recently that his outlook on school had changed a bit. It had veered off from being “an inconvenience that keeps me from other things I’d rather be doing” to “I hate it.” Moodiness or not, coming from him, that seemed pretty harsh.
About a week ago, after a particularly cranky evening, I ventured into his inner sanctum (bedroom) to attempt to get to the bottom of whatever was eating at him. Now, I have come to believe that talking to a teen boy is like an archeological dig. Best done carefully, casually, gently wiping away the layers, preferably working side by side with limited eye contact. If you dig too hard and too fast, you run the risk of it all falling apart, and walking away not getting what you were looking for.
Luck was with me that night, and after a few “I dunno” answers, my digging uncovered the gold nugget and he fessed up. A boy in several of his classes, who happened to have a locker right next to him, had been picking on him with name calling. The name itself wasn’t really the issue (honestly, I didn’t even understand it, it was made up words that rhymed), but it was the repetitive, taunting way it was used, and the fact the kid had even developed an obnoxious child-like song to accompany it.
Now from what we could tell, there hadn’t been any major event that had started this issue. The taunter was shorter and smaller than my son, and there had been no initial argument to kick it off. But for whatever reason, this boy targeted my son. My son was clearly very upset about the situation, after he finally unveiled it to us. I asked him why he hadn’t said anything sooner, reminding him that his school is strongly “anti-bullying.” He said he didn’t think it was a “big enough” deal, that it didn’t really constitute bullying. Ok, so it hadn’t gotten to the point where the kid was attempting to physically push my son around, and it wasn’t an issue of rampant cyber-bullying and rumor spreading…but it certainly was something that needed to stop.
We asked him how he reacted when the kid did this taunting. He replied “mostly just stand there and take it.” Then he said “well….accept…. promise you won’t get mad at me?” We braced ourselves for what he was about to say. Then he confessed that one day, during gym class, when he couldn’t take it anymore from this kid, our son called him a prick and kicked him in the shin. Maybe I’m a bad mom, but part of me inside was saying “Bravo!” and wanted to laugh. Luckily I held back.
The resolution, happily, was easy. The next morning my husband and I went to see the vice principal with our son, explained the situation, and by that afternoon we received a call that the boy had been talked to, along with some of his friends, they fessed up, the parents were called, and strict punishment was promised if it continued. So far, all has been quiet since. And that, in a way, shows the beauty of Middle School and that age. When they are called out, know they are in the wrong, they straighten out and fly right – at least for a while.
However, this whole small event was eye-opening to me. It made me wonder, was it really like this when we were kids? Was there such an issue with bullying during our youth? Were we that mean to each other? I don’t remember it being that way. I think in our day, we all certainly had our own groups and cliques, and we just avoided anyone who wasn’t within our group. But for the most part, I really don’t remember being purposefully rude to others.
But more importantly, it made me think “and so it begins.” That cute little blond toddler and pre-schooler boy of mine who used to play happily along side any other child is now having to find his own boundaries and learn that life isn’t always as easy as sharing toys. That there are going to be challenges with others, there are going to be mean people in his life. And I pray that it doesn’t taint him, that he continues on a good path to be as open, caring and accepting of others as possible.
I wish I could gather all teenagers together and show them a future mirror. Flash them forward to 20 years down the road when they will be at a high school reunion and realize they are all on the same playing field. They will all be gaining weight and losing hair, all working hard trying to do the best for their families, all following their dreams or at least trying to have successful careers…and once again, moving back to universal acceptance of each other. Eventually, in our adult lives, we come full circle – and those cliques, those warped opinions, the whole concern over who’s cooler than who – that just doesn’t matter. Just like in pre-school.
But until then, we just have to strap ourselves in for the bumpy ride through the teen years and hope we all come out on the other end a bit dizzy, but smiling.