My sister-in-law was wrestling with a decision about what kind of backpack to buy for my nephew, who is in preschool. Her concern was that the backpack she wanted to buy may be a bit too “girly." It was turquoise with red polka-dots and it looked like an owl. The other choices were a blue dog, a black and white penguin, a yellow bumblebee, a pink bear and a brown monkey.
She got a myriad of opinions on which backpack to buy. Most people said “if you’re worried about bullying, get the dog.” I tend to agree. None of us want our children to be a target, and the Mother Bear defense mechanism takes control when we think our child might be picked on in any way. We think that parents exist to protect children from the mean, cruel world that will stomp on their hopes and dreams when they express them. If kids show their true feelings in any way that might attract unwanted attention, which children are guaranteed to do, our response sometimes is to suppress the abnormality of the reaction and try to calm the emotions out of them with words, comforting actions, or even bribes. We may even anticipate painful social situations and defuse them before they arise. We try to manage their futures by manipulating how the world views them.
With every new encounter my kids have in the world, it becomes harder for me to keep from fighting imagined battles for them. My husband and I got our son inline skates one year for his birthday. Not the kind of deck hockey street skates that all the kids are wearing; these are adult-sized fitness skates that your mother wore in the 90’s during the roller-blading fitness days, with the huge brake on the back and adjustable sizing up to three different shoe sizes. We insist on his wearing a bike helmet for protection when rolling through the neighborhood because it’s the law, and because even as a child he is as big as a small adult, with precious little control over his fast-growing body, all arms and legs flailing about as he moves through the world. He knows not his own strength, let alone his unchecked limb-waving. In addition to the contraptions on his feet and head, he wears thick, bright orange knee socks from a past Little League uniform. Quite a sight he is, rolling, jerking, and careening down the rolling hills of our neighborhood, desperately trying to stay upright at 10 miles per hour.
My husband and I were taking a walk through the neighborhood one evening, and our son decided to rollerblade with us. He was still practicing staying upright on them, and really hadn’t got the stopping part down yet. On this particular walk he was stopping by smacking the toes of the blades into the nearest curb. This maneuver worked as long as he wasn't moving too fast. He just rolled right along, and when he felt he was getting a little out of control, SMACK he went into the concrete curb.
We were walking down a particularly steep hill past some neighborhood kids, and as he waved hello, my son abruptly lost control of the blades, and I could see the panic on his face as he tried to slow down before smacking the curb with his toes. Unfortunately, he wasn’t successful, and kind of slid on his bottom across the street onto the curb. Because our children emote on an Oscar-winning level, a screech and a scream came out of my son instantly, simultaneously producing tears as big as 5-carat diamonds. My husband and I and the neighbor kids openly gaped at him as he grabbed his rear end and writhed in pain. Our inaction only served to intensify his anguish so he began yelling “IT REALLY HURTS!! I HURT MY BUTT!!” After this performance, at which I giggled a little at its absurdity and over-the-top quality, we assessed his injuries to be non-life-threatening. He gathered himself up and we continued on our way.
Inside, I was mortified and embarrassed for him. I was sure that these children who witnessed this unfortunate sight would never again be friendly with my son, and that he had started a chapter in his life that would forever be plagued by bullying. His life flashed before my eyes as one that would involve me constantly demanding justice for the discrimination and harassment he was sure to receive. As his mother, I will be his advocate forever, but now I had to step up my role as paving the way to a more comfortable, emotionally safe future for my sensitive boy and his fragile spirit. I would save him from the world.
The next day after school, one of the kids who had witnessed the carnage came to the house asking for my son to play outside. As I watched the boys go out into the neighborhood, the previous day’s incident was never mentioned. It didn’t matter. Here were two boys shooting basketballs at a rickety hoop, laughing together as if they didn’t have a care in the world. Back in the house, there was a mother who was more than willing to take on any burden for her son and any other bullied child who comes along. My son, in his orange knee socks and 90’s era rollerblades, doesn’t care what he looks like or acts like, and his friend doesn’t either, as long as they can be friends and shoot hoops after school.
I’m going to tell my sister-in-law to get her son that owl backpack. Maybe she should get him the pink bear, if that’s what he wants.