“Bye, Tradd,” my 6-year-old son said. It came out “My, Madd,” because Will clenched a Star Wars pencil horizontally between his teeth.
“Huh?” said his bigger, taller friend — normal-sized for a 6-year-old. His immaculately barbered hair contrasted sharply with my son’s wild mop of a surfer cut.
“I said, ‘Bye Tradd,’” Will repeated in a pencil-obstructed slur.
“What are you saying?” Tradd asked. His eyebrows raised, his nose wrinkled. My stomach dropped. I knew that look. Oh, how well I knew that look.
“I’m saying, ‘Bye, Tradd,’” Will slurred emphatically.
“Oooookay,” Tradd said. He walked off down the path, away from us, away from Will.
It wasn’t bullying. It wasn’t ridicule. But it was dismissal.
“You’re acting weird,” Tradd had said.
Will didn’t catch the social cues to hear it, or if he did, didn’t know the unwritten rules he’d broken. He trotted happily to the car, pencil in mouth. We never talked about it.
But I ached. The memories battered me.
I could read the signs: like me, my sweet son had become the weird kid.
For me, everything seemed fine until second grade. At 7, some switch flipped or rule kicked in or social mores had became complex enough to enforce. Back then, they called it teasing. Really, I was bullied.
The Queen Bees called me stupid, weird. They made fun of my name. I dreaded gym; picked last for everything, when one team inadvertently acquired me, they loudly bemoaned their luck. The girls wouldn’t teach me their handclap games; they kept their birthday parties a secret. Some of them even threw me in the muddy cornfield next to school. I spent my recesses alone, alone, alone. And when I spoke, kids answered me in that she’s-so-ridiculous tone. That same tone Tradd used on my son.
That sense of weirdness never ended; I wore it through school like some kiddie scarlet letter. Girls barred me from their lunch table. Boys shouted out, “Shut up, you’re ugly.” Someone wrote “LESBIAN” at the top of my paper, a move we’d now call sexual harassment. I spent part of high school with an eating disorder — I couldn’t believe myself worthy of food. I cut my wrists. My arms. My legs. I swore to get out of there and run, run, run as far as I could.
A decade and a half later, white scars fading, my belly swelled with my oldest son. And I promised myself: he would never feel the way I had. This precious baby would never be the weird kid. No one would drive him into the abyss of teen depression. Will would have sunshine. Will would have friends. Will would have birthday parties and best friends and a childhood — really, a childhood I didn’t get. I swelled with power, with my ability to help him. I could shield him from the misery, the loneliness, the mean words. And when it happened, I could arm him against it.
So I structured everything to maximize his happiness and to bolster self-esteem. We stayed away from kids that kicked or bit (all of them, I know now, including my darling Will). We lavished him with love; we attachment parented. He’s still welcome in our bed, and he crawls in regularly. I wrapped him on my back when he threw tantrums: we had “time-in” rather than time-out. We read the research. We praised effort, not achievement. All this engineered to convince Will he was a strong, capable person who couldn’t be dragged down.
And we chose to homeschool.
Most of the misery comes from the school environment, I reasoned. The bullies live there. If I could keep him away from the bullies, just for a crucial few years, I could save him. We wanted to homeschool for other reasons, of course, Will’s ADHD among them. But avoiding mean kids played a part in our decision too.
And it had backfired. Tradd and Will’s interaction had happened at a homeschool co-op party. A supposedly safe place. Despite all my hard work, despite my efforts, the bullies would come. They’d call my baby weird. He had to be strong enough to take it.
He had been, that time. On another day, a friend’s son had laughed at Will during a playdate. “You’re wearing girl jeans!” Tristan sneered.
Will broke down in tears. A known friend, a park — I had thought he was safe. I assured Will that his jeans were not girl jeans, and if they were, so what? But Will cried a long time. Tristan was supposed to be his friend.
Will still wears those jeans. He still walks around with a pencil in his mouth, and hasn’t mentioned either incident again, except to say that Tristan’s no longer his friend. Neither incident scarred him. Neither incident changed him.
I still worry my son will be a victim. I worry he’ll suffer the same depression and anxiety I did. But I assure myself: so far, we’re doing fine. So far, he’s shining and strong and happy. I can’t keep Will safe forever, but I can help him. I can encourage him, and praise hard work, and surround him with people who are, on the whole, positive. I can arm him with a strong sense of self, one that recognizes bullies and speaks out. I can listen.
And most of all, I can love him.More On