April 18, 2012
SLAM!!! I hear the door bang shut, and witness a small blur race past me into the rec room, with my husband’s shout of “shoes!” trailing behind him. Zach usually loves to tell me about his day when he first arrives home, particularly after a Saturday afternoon at the park with his dad. Jeff strides into the kitchen, and I ask him how it went. He shakes his head and motions me into the dining room, and I hustle in there because the look on his face is grim, and to see that expression on his face after an outing with Zach is a rarity. We walk quickly to a corner of the room where I’m certain no little ears can overhear. My spouse turns to me, remnants of rage and disgust on his face, and says “Zach just had his first experience with “mean girls”.
One was three years old. It seems they’re starting much earlier these days.
Zach’s had the occasional rebuff from kids at the playground, usually groups much older than he is, and he’s taken the lack of interest in playing with him in stride. He has friends at school, was literally a rock star at camp last summer where he was the only (and coveted) boy, and generally gets along with everyone. Rejection is not within his lexicon of experiences, and although I know there’s a first time for everyone, my heart aches for him that it happened before he’s even entered kindergarten.
Jeff tells me that he initially was hovering near a group of four girls near his age, all looking like they’d just come from a birthday party, or some such event. He said they promptly walked away from him, but that the oldest girl marched over to Jeff, looked him in the eye and said, “we don’t want to play with your son.” My husband shared this declaration was delivered with a tone that will serve this young lady well in high school, but we both admitted it was within her rights not to play with a boy, which is exactly what this was about. Fortunately, there was no discrimination going on here under than gender-related exclusion, and she had the right to decline his offer.
Her loss, but she had the right.
At this point in the conversation I admit I’m not quite getting the severity of the situation, as Zach has been told before that he’s a boy and therefore had not a chance in hell in being included in group play, and he’s rebounded just fine. I watch my husband take a step closer to me, check to make sure Zach was still occupied in the other room, and said, “It wasn’t the older one that was the problem. It was the littlest one. Zach was so much taller than her, she couldn’t have been more than three. He was minding his own business up on the jungle gym after I told him to leave them alone, and she just walked over and said to him, with her little group in tow, ‘We want to hurt your feelings on purpose.’ I yelled for Zach to come down, and I told him she was a mean girl and to play on the ground, and he seemed angry and upset, but again, he got it. He again said he’d stay away from them, climbed down the stairs, and ran around on his own. Then, she came down too. She looked for him, ran over, and purposefully shoved him off the playground equipment.”
I feel the blood rush to my face and my fingers clench into fists. I want to get into my car and drive back to the damn playground and tell her to apologize to my boy, and that if she doesn’t change her ways she’ll end up a miserable, lonely harridan whose life will peak in pre-school.
I really, really want to, but I don’t.
I ask if he was okay, and did he push her back, and the answers are yes and no respectively, and I’m proud of his choice. He knows he’s only to fight back if he has to protect himself, using moves he’s practiced at home, and knows he’ll never be in trouble with us if that’s how things go down. He also understands not to hurt anyone whenever possible and to tell an adult after the incident, which was unnecessary as Jeff got to him in two quick strides.
My husband goes on to say he ran over to the scene, his six-foot plus frame towering over this rude pre-schooler. He told her in no uncertain terms in his scary “quiet voice” that she was mean, that Zach had been nowhere near her, and that she needed to say she was sorry NOW. Finally, her mom showed up. She made her stunned daughter apologize again, offered up the comment that “she’s usually better than this”, and actually waved to my boys when they left the premises.
Jeff declined to return the gesture.
We walk together to the family room and hunker down on our forty-something creaking knees, and I hold my boy’s face in my hands. I ask him if he’s okay with what happened that afternoon, and he asks me why she would do that, and proudly tells me he didn’t push her back. I tell him I’m proud of him, but that defending himself if he has to is okay, and he nods.
He asks me “why”, and I say I don’t know, that she must be a very unhappy little girl or having a very bad day to have acted like that to such a nice boy. I remind him of all the friends he does have, the civilized ones who don’t act like that either publicly, or privately. We give him a “group hug”, and Zach returns to constructing his relatively complicated robot, the incident seemingly forgotten, wiped from his memory.
But I wonder, deep down, if it really is.
I taught elementary school for a dozen years. I am not so naïve as to believe that all kids will be friends with one another, will even like each other at the end of the day. Frankly, I don’t like all the grown-ups I know. It seems a bit much to expect individuals in single digits to rise above with everyone they meet.
But somehow, some way, we have got to teach our children that while they may not want to include every child in their posse, they have to at least demonstrate respect those with whom they don’t quite click. Extending a hand in friendship would be better, but at the very least, tolerance is expected, hell, demanded. It’s one of the central tenets of the non-profit my mother and I have founded, a program I’m hoping will find a home in at least one of the Garden State’s elementary schools this fall. This wish, and of course the boys, are the driving force in my life.
Good wine and cable tv feature in there too, but the other two are far more important. I have my priorities straight.
My creaking kneecaps finally beg for mercy, and I struggle upright, willing myself to put the incident behind me as well. I hug my husband and tell him he did well, although I wish he had told that mom what her daughter said to our boy prior to pushing him. I also wish he had said it quite loudly in front of all the other moms, regardless of whether this little girl was having an “off day” or not. I make a mental note not to return to that spot unless we’re meeting one of Zach’s friends, and am grateful that he has that option. I also firmly remind myself I can’t orchestrate the next thirteen years of Zach’s social life, (although I’d like to). I squeeze my strong son’s shoulder one last time, this post already beginning its tentative flutterings within the recesses of my brain.
It begins with “mean girls, beware.” This is one family who’s watching you.