I was kneeling on the floor, helping R zip up that testy zipper on his winter coat when he asked the question. I looked up and met his eyes. He had such an intent look on his face. Getting to kindergarten on time would have to wait.
I knew why he was asking. There’s a boy at school who has been calling him names. The names are innocuous and silly, the made-up insults of a first-grader, but they trouble R—and me. Words can hurt just as much as fists, I’ve told him, and he believes me. He’s confused, then, that other people don’t understand that. He doesn’t get why this boy he barely knows is unkind to him.
“I’m not sure why people are mean, honey,” I said. “Sometimes, I think it’s because they are sad inside, and when they hurt someone else they feel better for a little while. But that feeling doesn’t last, because it’s wrong to be mean.”
I could see him thinking about this. He picked up his hat. “Why are they sad?”
“Maybe they feel very small inside, maybe they don’t believe in themselves,” I explained.
I hesitated to say that. I want my kids to be confident and, for a moment, I worried that suggesting the alternative might make them think not believing in yourself is a possibility. But, at four and six, they deserve to explore the various reasons people chose to be mean. It started so early for them. Both kids had experiences in preschool with other children who did or said things that upset them. We got through those times by talking about good and bad behavior and seeking guidance from their teachers. It’s only now that R is in kindergarten that he’s trying to understand why mean behavior exists.
G, my daughter, moved across the room, boots in hand. She sat in my lap, and pulled on one pink boot and then another as R and I watched.
“It’s not good to be mean,” she said, sharing her truth with the clarity of a four-year-old.
“You’re right, baby. It’s not,” I said, stroking her hair and reaching for R’s hand.
“Do you want me to talk to your teacher about the boy at school?” I asked him. I had inquired about this before.
“No,” he said. “He’s not mean all of the time. Just sometimes.”
He put on his hat and mittens, as I zippered G’s pink winter coat and tucked her hair under her hat.
“You know it’s not acceptable for anyone to call you names or to be mean to you. It’s OK to talk with your teacher about it. She might have some ideas how to make it better. I could ask her with you.”
He shook his head. “It’s OK, Mommy.”
I pulled him close for a tight hug. “No matter what that boy says or does, you know I love you and that you’re a good boy, a special person, right?”
R smiled, as we moved out of our embrace. “I know, Mommy.”
He gave me a kiss. “Is it time for school?”
And, with that, we were done with this topic. For now.
This conversation happened a few weeks ago, and it’s been bothering me ever since. Was my explanation adequate? Should I have pushed harder to have someone at school intervene? Part of the uncertainty and challenge of parenthood is figuring out when to let our kids manage things themselves and when they need us to do more than guide and encourage. That place of I’m-not-sure-what-to-do is where I am now.
The good news is that R doesn’t seem upset about the boy’s words; he’s more perplexed. His questioning makes me hopeful. I hope it means he won’t be a passive follower; instead, he’ll question and wonder. And speak up when something is wrong. Stand up against those who are cruel.
And, we’ll keep talking. I’ll keep asking him about school, his friends, and the other kids. I’ll listen when he shares, and I’ll try to answer his questions thoughtfully—whether or not the response will make us late for school.