My son was on the way home from baseball when I got the email. It was from a friend of mine whose son is in his class: “This email is very hard for me to write …. ” I barely made it through the next sentence before the tears welled up. Snippets of carefully chosen words jumped out at me. “Teasing,” “name calling,” “humiliating,” “bullying, bullying, bullying.”
How could my son, the little boy that I raised to take bugs outside and have a kind word for everyone, be a bully? I thought back to all the pain I’d felt in my own childhood for being teased about being Jewish and shy and terribly flat-chested. I’d built up such a fortress of confidence and strength since then, it seemed impossible that words could hurt me that much again.
Yet, there I was, sobbing like a child over something that my son had said. I sat there, phone in hand, heart in my throat, until my husband and son arrived. My son burst through the door, triumphant: “I pitched great, Mom! And I hit two doubles.” I forced a weak smile.
Suddenly, my no-time-for-nonsense son stopped right in the pile of cleat mud he’d tracked in and asked me a question I hadn’t heard from him in months. “Are you OK, Mom?” Those words were all that it took to let loose the tears I’d been fighting hard to contain.
My other two kids crowded around me with anxious faces. I shooed them gently out of the room and handed my husband my phone to read the message. After a few moments of deep breaths and quiet conversation, we called our son back into the room.
“Tell me what’s going on with Matt.”
He needed to say something good really fast, or I was going to lose it again.
“I … I … don’t know what you mean.”
“I have an email here from his mom that says you haven’t been treating him very well.” Deep breaths.
His face got that look. The one where his eyes go all wide and his cheeks get all red and his lips swell up into sad puffy pillows. The one that reaches in past all the anger and mistrust, right down to my soft ooey gooey Mama heart and just keeps squeezing.
“He’s my friend, Mom. I haven’t been mean to him.”
His big brown eyes were pooling up. I wanted so much to believe him. And yet … and yet … I had an incriminating email right in my hand.
“Are you telling me that his mom is lying?”
There was no stopping the tears now. Both his and mine. Because no matter what this sweaty, red-cheeked boy had done, he was still my boy. The boy that I carried in my womb for 9 months and in my heart for more than a decade. His freckles, his tears, even his mistakes, on some level, they were all still mine.
“No … it’s just … those things are kind of true, but not completely true. Ben is the one that did them.”
Ben, the other boy in the story, with his petulant mannerisms and already adolescent frame, he was too easy a scapegoat.
“So, you’re saying Ben did all this stuff?”
He tried to answer, but the tears broke up his words into unintelligible sounds. He nodded instead.
“What did YOU do while Ben was being mean to Matt?”
“I … nothing I guess.”
An image flashed into my head of my own fifth grade class. A middle schooler was hurling insults at me. I can’t remember his face. What I do remember is that my friend was standing next to me with an absentminded smile on her face saying nothing.
He was crying hard now. I hugged him tightly. After a long while, he looked up.
“You believe me, right, Mom? I didn’t do anything.”
We talked for a long time. I told him that I did believe him, but that doing nothing can also be a bad choice. We talked about how, right or wrong, we get judged by the people that we choose to spend our time with. We talked about how important it is to stand up for our friends. It was a long, difficult conversation. When it was finally over, I realized something that I hadn’t been sure of in months. My son fears my lack of faith in him more than any punishment or scolding.
My husband and I debated a lot about how to punish him. In the end we decided on something small. Not because what he did wasn’t serious, but because he knew it was serious and because he, on his own, created some very clear steps for what he could do to atone for his mistake. He made plans to apologize to Matt, to never let Ben mistreat him again, and to have both boys over so that they could work things out in person. He’ll follow through with those plans. I know he will. Because I meant it when I said that I trusted him.
My heart hurt for hours after our conversation. It wasn’t just this episode with his friends. My son is growing up, moving further from me every day. Until now, I’ve been there for his defining moments. More and more, those big experiences, both good and bad, will happen without me.
Instead of being there to help him navigate through the tricky places in life, I’ll only be able to listen and hope that he still values my advice. Our bond is rapidly shifting from one of necessity to one of love. All the old timeouts and stern lectures will have to be replaced by something more appropriate to his maturing mind and growing sense of self.
So, in place of punishments, I will give trust, and in place of rewards, I will give faith. And always, always, I will give love.