I have a dominant personality-type. This makes it challenging for me to understand how other people do (or do not) face their issues. “Just do it,” is pretty much the gist of my advice, and it challenges me as a friend and a parent. Patience is not one of my virtues, but I try. I understand the need for my kids to be strong, independent people, and this is a process that needs to come from within.
My daughter has many of my qualities, but dominance is not one of them. She is introverted, a peace-keeper. She was in 4th grade when our “how was your day” talks took a turn. At first the stories were about control and the loss of it, “Bertha wanted to stand in the front of the line today, but I was the line leader! And she cut anyway…Ethyl wanted to stand behind Bertha, and she got in front of me.” I would ask her the same question I ask every person who tells me something happens to them: “What did you do about it?” What I would get was: (whine, whine, cry) “I wanted to stand there!” (blah, blah.) This conversation played out with my daughter reporting the daily line news, and me gritting my teeth and explaining that, unless she tells them how she feels, locking herself in a control battle over a place in line is sooo not worth it. “But it’s not fair!” she wailed. “Life isn’t fair,” I said. This is not the first time I have heard this story from her – I have endured the “line play-by-play” since pre-school, and I was sick of it.
Then the story changed. “Ethyl pushed me into a wall today,” she whispered. “I fell on the floor and it really hurt.” I saw red. I have to admit, my “What did you do about it,” probably came out a little more accusatory than normal. Nothing. She laid on the floor. The teacher didn’t see, and she didn’t tell. This was my daughter’s passive personality rearing its ugly head, and here was my dominant personality about to do the same. “How could you let someone do that to you? She has no right to touch you! Why didn’t you tell? Why didn’t you yell ‘Hey! Why did you push me? That hurt!’ Why didn’t you stand strong and not let yourself get pushed?” My daughter’s face said it all: she slumped over, tears streaking down. She didn’t, because she couldn’t. “But Mom, I’m not strong,” she admitted in a small voice. Wow. My kid is petite, but the girl that pushed her over is the shortest kid in the entire grade. I cried.
Over the next few weeks, this conversation played out again and again, with more pushing incidences from both girls, and the B word a nightly conversation as my husband and I argued about what to do. My first instinct was to charge into school and shout from the rooftops that my child was being bullied. But he did not agree. “This is not a problem with those girls,” he said. “This is a problem with our girl. She is going to need to learn how to stand up for herself today or tomorrow, and it’s just going to get harder.” By knee-jerking an emotionally-charged term like bullying at this point, we would be denying the part that our child played in this. There were 23 other kids in that classroom that had no problem with these girls. They picked on her, because she let them.
We saw this as a self-esteem problem, not a bullying problem. Believe me, had the physical aggression been more severe, we would have addressed it differently. But as a “bullying problem,” the problem and the solution focused on those two girls, their parents, and the school. We had very little control over those outcomes. As a self esteem issue, we could focus on developing our child, and making it less likely for this to happen with other people down the road. Besides, I was warned about using the B word in school by a friend whose son had been B’d. When she went to the administration and complained, they responded by removing her child from his classroom instead of dealing with the offender. Uh, no thank you. She had advised me: before you pull that trigger, use all other words to describe your situation. We did not want our daughter removed from her class, and we felt very strongly that any attempt that we took to fix her problem would ultimately fail. I held her close after she tearfully asked me to just make it all go away. “Honey, I can’t go to school with you every day. Even if I got in their face and told those girls to leave you alone, it wouldn’t fix the problem. The problem is you.” I hugged her tight as she cried. It is one of the hardest and best things I have ever said to my kid.
I met with her teacher, alone and off record, no B word, because I wanted to make sure that I was getting an accurate picture from my child. Though he hadn’t witnessed any pushing, he corroborated that the other students were “difficult,” and that my kid was making herself a target by being “mousey.” He appreciated being put on alert that they have been physically aggressive (sadly, he said, kids are smart enough to not do it when teachers are around.) He encouraged her to report any incidences to him, but one of her fears was that she was going to get in trouble by speaking up. (Both of my children say this. Thank you, “no tattling rules…”) “They will tell the teacher and I will get in trouble!” Sigh. “You have every right to stand up for yourself, and you will not get in trouble with a teacher, but even if you do, the worst thing that can happen is they will call me, and I will never get mad at you, OK? I will hug and high-five you.” This message has not magically worked with my kids, and it has frustrated the Hell out of me.
I called a friend who is a 5 ft tall black belt in karate. She agreed to work with her weekly. “There is nothing more therapeutic than learning how to punch and kick something. Girls are not taught that growing up.” The lessons consisted of hitting and kicking pads, while yelling from the core: “Hah!” This was really hard for her – it took weeks to do it right. Lest you think I was advocating for my daughter to learn how to hit someone (I wasn’t), she also met with the guidance counselor to work on self esteem, and she started Cotillion where she had to dance with boys, go through a receiving line, and give eye contact to adults. I think she preferred the punching bag.
Slowly, she transformed. The pushing incidences tapered and eventually stopped. I would love to tell you that in a movie-finale moment, she told these girls off, and I never had to hear their names again. But like a moth to a flame, she flitted in and out of relationship with these frenemies, and I did a very good job of not choking them. I wanted to order her to stay away, but I knew that she had to make this choice on her own (OK, my husband knew that, but I eventually accepted it.) She is now in middle school in another town (buh bye Bertha and Ethyl.) But I would be lying if I thought moving schools ended her problems – it’s middle school! At 72 lbs, just walking the hallway makes her a target in a sea of older, bigger bodies. Recently, I told her that defending yourself gets harder and more important as you age. “I know how to defend myself Mom. I just need to use my inside voice.” Huh? I thought that an “inside voice” was what I threatened them to use whenever they got too loud in a building. “You know,” (speaking like a sweet little girl) “this is my polite, outside voice,” (speaking in a HUGE, harsh voice) “AND THIS IS MY INSIDE VOICE – DON’T MESS WITH ME!!!”
(wow! it worked…)
Teach your kids to use their inside voice. Use it loud and clear, from their gut, to tell someone not to mess with them. Ever again.