Ethan (seven) has been having a little trouble at school. He’s bright and motivated and his teachers love him. He has lots of friends. AND (I’m deliberately not saying “but”) he has really big feelings. He gets frustrated when something happens out of the usual order and he doesn’t feel prepared, for instance. We (both our family unit and the family unit of his mother’s and stepfather’s house) have always made sure he knows that it is okay to cry. We set the example; we show our emotions and encourage him to check in with and express his own. Unfortunately, some of his fellow classmates (you couldn’t hear it but I just sneezed and it sounded just like ‘dumb boys.’ It was weird) have started calling him “cry baby.”
We talked about it a lot over the weekend. His school is supposed to have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to bullying, which seems nice. When I was in school in the 80s, bullying was a perfectly acceptable hobby for a lot of kids, encouraged by parents and gym teachers alike. But really there’s zero-tolerance for bullying that happens directly in front of an un-distracted authority figure, which typically isn’t the setting the these little butt holes choose. So we discussed some strategies that he could try, such as going to a teacher if the issue persists, and gave him some reassurance that he’s fine, just the way he is.
I hate this stuff because it brings up my own childhood crap. But also because I HATE the way school breaks our kids. I see it with my nieces and nephews and my friend’s children. Everyone starts out confident and quirky and excited about school and then they get dumped into the sausage machine and the shitty little kids who need everyone to be the same will appoint themselves the gatekeepers of what is allowed and beat the quirks to a pulp. It makes me so sad.
In response, I did something bad. I knew it was bad, and I did it anyway. I was driving Ethan to school so it was just the two of us and I brought up the situation. I waited so that I could get him to myself and not have his Dad hear me and have to correct me for my terrible advice.
“You know,” I said, stopping at a traffic light. “I was thinking of something you could say to [Kid’s Name].”
“What?” Ethan asked.
“Next time he calls you a crybaby, say ‘yeah, but I can stop crying and you will still be ugly.”
“Oh, Rachel!” Ethan said, his eyes bright with a smile, but shaking his splayed hands in front of him, as if refusing another slice of cake. “I would get in so much trouble!”
This is the problem with zero-tolerance policies. The kids who don’t care about following the rules won’t be dissuaded, but the kids who just want to do the right thing won’t even defend themselves.
“You could tell your teacher that I told you to say it,” I said. “I will take the blame!”
“Actually, I thought of something else I could say,” he said.
“What is that?”
“I’m just going to say, ‘how would you feel if someone said that to you?’ And then they will realize it isn’t nice.”
I made myself say, “Yeah… that’s good… too.” I checked the rear-view mirror. “But you could still think about my response. It might make you laugh.”
I got a good smile and a little chuckle then. “Yeah,” he said. “It is funny.”
We don’t get him again until the weekend so I won’t get to check in with him for a few days. I feel so much pressure to enjoy him now, while he is cute and sweet and small. And as purely him as he will be again. Every day those shitty little dumb-asses change him a little more. This is the price we pay for being social animals, I guess. Now I understand why people choose to home-school. I wouldn’t go that far, however. At the risk of offending someone, I’ve met home-schooled kids and some of them could stand having some weirdness smoothed down in the sausage machine.