I will never forget the day my daughter told me that Bethany, a girl in her fourth-grade class, was annoying her.
“What is she doing to you?” I questioned, instinctively protective.
“She’s following me around on the playground and sitting by me at lunch!” she quipped, as if that would sum things right up and get me squarely on her side of the matter.
“You mean she’s trying to be friends with you?” I asked incredulously.
I realized immediately that I had a problem on my hands. I was raising my own worst nightmare. Smack dab in the middle of my brood of five kids, was a charismatic, sassy, leggy, blonde, dance-y, athletic girl oozing confidence—and apparently annoyance, directed toward another little girl who wasn’t lucky enough to be her. Inconveniently for my daughter, her own mother was Bethany in grade school. Freckled of face and frizzy of hair, I was an Army brat, always the new girl clamoring for a friend, drawn to the natural confidence of girls like my daughter. This conversation found me vacillating between heartache and fury, but one thing I knew for sure: Mama was about to put her money where her mouth had been all these years.
The battle of two very strong wills ensued at my home the next morning. It wasn’t pretty, but I prevailed. My daughter attended a private Catholic grade school, where on any given day, she and a handful of her cohorts ruled the roost. One quick phone call to Bethany’s mother that same evening confirmed my worst fears. My daughter and her posse were using everything short of a can of anti-cling to rid themselves of the annoying Bethany.
I’m sure there are parents out there who will say I overreacted. But, I firmly believe the rejection and complete lack of interest my daughter and her clique displayed toward Bethany was the beginning of a subtle type of bullying. It is true (confirmed to me by Bethany’s mom and teachers) that there was no overt unkindness or name-calling. There was just rejection—a complete lack of interest in someone they wrongly concluded had nothing to offer them. After experiencing childhood myself and raising five of my own, I’ve been on every side of the bullying social dynamic, and I am convinced this is where it begins, with a casual assessment and quick dismissal of an outsider.
We would serve our children well, in my opinion, if we had a frank conversation with them about Social Darwinism and what motivates human beings to accept and reject others. It happens at every age and stage of life, race, creed, and religion. It has its roots in our own fears of rejection and lack of confidence. Everyone is jockeying for their own spot on the social food chain.
I feel like I have experienced demonstrable success with my children by tabling this dynamic right out in the open. Parents need to call it by name, speak it out loud, and shine a bright light in its ugly face. We need to admit to our children that we too experience this, even as adults. Of course, it’s tempting to curry favor and suck-up to the individual a rung or two above you on the social ladder, but every single human being deserves our attention and utmost respect. In spite of this, we have to constantly remind our children and ourselves that everyone can bring unexpected and unanticipated value to our lives. But we have to let them.
It’s simply not enough to instruct your children to “be nice!”—you’ve got to be more specific than that. Kids think if they aren’t being outright unkind, they are being nice. We know better. Connect the ugly dots. Explain the Darwinistic social survival instinct that’s often motivating and guiding their impulses. I promise you, they can handle it. They already see it on some level anyway. They just need you to give it a voice and redirection.
As for my girl, I instructed her that she was going to invest some time and energy getting to know Bethany. I assigned her to come home from school the next day and report three cool things she found out about Bethany that she didn’t previously know. My strong-willed child dug in. She did not want to do that. I dug in deeper. I refused to drive her to school the next morning until she agreed. It seemed that, at least until now, I had the car keys and the power. Her resistance gave us time to have the Social Darwinism conversation. I walked her through my ATM analogy. I explained to her that she had social bank to spare. She could easily make a withdrawal on behalf of this little girl while risking very little.
“Let’s invest!” I enthused and encouraged.
She got dressed reluctantly, and I drove her to school. She had a good day—what was left of it. But she was still buggy with me when I picked her up, telling me that her friends’ mothers “stay out of such matters” and let their daughters “choose their own friends” (such wise women). And then she told me three cool things about Bethany that she didn’t previously know.
I checked back in with Bethany’s mother by phone two weeks later. It’s called follow-through. (I don’t think enough of us are doing that. We helicopter over our kids’ wardrobes, nutrition, sleep schedules, hygiene, science fair projects, and then pride ourselves on how hands-off we are on social issues. If I had a dollar for every time I wanted to say, “Seriously? You micromanage the literal crap out of everything your child does from his gluten intake to his soccer cleats, but this you stay out of?” No wonder there’s zero accountability and a bullying culture. Bethany’s mother assured me that she had been welcomed into the fold of friendship and was doing well.
Bethany’s family moved to another state a few years later. My daughter cried when they parted ways. They still keep in touch through all their social media channels. She was and is a really cool girl who has a lot to offer her peers. But the real value was to my daughter, obviously. She gained so much through that experience.
My daughter is now a 20-year-old college sophomore with a widely diverse group of friends. She is kind, inclusive, and open to all types of people. When she was malleable, impressionable, and mine to guide, she learned that your initial instinct about people isn’t always correctly motivated. She discovered that you can be friends with the least likely people and that the best friendships aren’t necessarily people who are your “type”; in the world of friendship, contrast is a plus. And she found that there are times within a given social framework that you’re in a position to make a withdrawal on behalf of someone else. Be generous. Invest! It pays dividends.
But, most importantly, she learned that while I may not be overly interested in what she gets on her science fair project or whether or not her long blonde hair is snarled, she’s going to damn well treat people right.
Parents, your kids are going to eventually develop the good sense to wear a jacket and eat vegetables, invest your energy in how they interact within society. If we insist on being the hovering helicopter parent generation, let’s at least hover over the right areas.
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