My oldest son had a friend over to spend the night the day of their high school orientation, so I had them both in tow as we sat through a seminar and they toured their new (very large) high school.
I didn’t know his friend very well; he seemed quiet and shy and I didn’t push him too much by asking a million questions.
As we were making our way back to the car and the students were standing in groups talking, we passed a bunch of kids. One of them stopped mid-conversation to make a point to say “hi” to my son’s friend and address him by name. I was shocked that my son’s friend responded by giving him a dirty look, making a funny noise, then proceeding to laugh in his face.
The boy who said hello to him was clearly stunned, embarrassed, and wasn’t sure how to handle his rude behavior.
Neither did I.
I didn’t know this boy well, and though he wasn’t my child, he appeared to be since he was with me and his mother was not. To me, that made him my responsibility for the time being.
What I wanted to do was set him straight in front of all the kids that were present and had just witnessed what had happened, but my goal wasn’t to make another person feel like shit that day and publicly shame them.
Instead, in an attempt to take the awkwardness out of the situation, I said hello to the nice boy and asked how he was.
Then, once we were sitting in the car, my son said, “Mom, just don’t say anything” — because before I even opened my mouth, he knew what was coming.
I won’t lie, it was hard not to lose my shit in the face of such blatant unkindness. And I worried that if my son’s friend acted like this in front of an adult, how did he present himself when there were no adults around?
I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. I also wasn’t sure that I wanted my kid hanging out with him.
“What was that about?” I asked him. “That guy clearly went out of his way to say hello to you and you acknowledged him by making a strange sound and laughing at him. It was rude and hurt his feelings.”
He stared at me, blinked once, and said nothing.
“How would you feel if someone did that to you in front of your friends?”
“Listen, being a teenager is hard enough. You gotta be nice to each other, dude. You don’t have to be best friends with the guy, but answering with a ‘hello’ back and moving on takes a lot less effort than what you did.”
“Yeah, I guess,” he said. “I just don’t even know him. We just met in the group and now he thinks we are friends.”
“Oh, how horrible to make a new friend,” I said sarcastically and laughed to lift the mood.
I’d called him “Dude.” I was trying to be light and airy about this because I thought if I let my true feelings around the situation flow, he wouldn’t hear what I was saying.
“Okay, Mom,” my son said. “Please, can we just go now?” Clearly he was struggling too and annoyed with me for engaging his friend about his behavior.
He wasn’t the only one — we were all a little annoyed and uncomfortable that day. But I’d like to think because I took the time to address this kid’s behavior instead of just ignoring it, or going off on him like I originally wanted to, he was able to reflect on what he’d done and hopefully not do it again. At least, I hope he would think twice before demeaning someone publicly again.
Being a parent to your own kids is difficult enough, but it doesn’t stop us from wanting to get up in someone else’s shit when we think we know better. Especially when they are making someone else feel small. Then we remind ourselves to stay in our own lane and worry about ourselves.
Witnessing a child who’s being unkind, acting like an asshole for no reason or is engaging in unsafe behavior is definitely cause for stepping in and speaking to them in a constructive way. I don’t care what anyone says. If I see your kid being unkind, I’m going to say something to them about it in a way they can (hopefully) hear. I won’t ignore behavior like this.
If it was my child being a dick, you better believe I’d want someone to speak up, make them aware of their behavior, and remind them people have feelings and they should be treated with kindness.
Too often, bad behavior gets ignored. We are too busy, don’t want to take them time, don’t know what to say, or think it’s hopeless. We don’t want to step on another parent’s toes, or engage in conflict.
Then, the heavy lifting is left solely up to the teachers and parents of the world who work their asses off to pick up the slack. And you know what? Parents and teachers aren’t always around to shed some insight on wrong behavior. And if we aren’t there, we may never find out and our kid(s) may never be held accountable. That’s not a good thing.
If we all chipped in just a smidge, fewer people would try and get away with acting like mean jerks whenever they wanted to. Kids would learn kindness, empathy and accountability.
The world would be a better place. Seriously. There would be less pain and suffering.
Parents and teachers can use all the help and support we can get. Even the ones who think they have it all under control will find themselves in a tough spot at some point, and not know where to turn.
So, if you see a someone being unkind or hurtful, speak up. There is zero reason to let someone be degraded without talking to the person who is being a bully. Shitty behavior needs to be called out and it can be done in a productive way. Unkind behavior doesn’t warrant an unkind response (especially when kids are involved), but there is a way to respond to the situation candidly and directly with kindness and compassion.
Maybe I didn’t make an impression on my son’s friend that day. Or perhaps I did but it won’t sink in until he’s 28 and watches a kid do something similar to his own child. Who knows.
But what I do know is this: he’s never pulled anything like that around me since then. And as soon as we sat in the car, my son knew exactly what was going to happen, which reaffirms that I’m setting a good example for my own kids and doing a small portion of this parenting thing right.
Does that mean my three kids are angels? Hell to the no. All kids, even the “good ones,” know how to pull out their inner asshole and show it to the world even if they know better. Especially when they think no one is watching. They are kids, and they’ll make mistakes. Hell, even adults aren’t their best selves from time to time. We’re human, after all.
But if we don’t bring it to their attention — even if we only whisper in their ear, “Hey, you are a good kid, you can do better than that” — they will do it a hell of a lot more. These are the times when the village, if they can act like mature adults, is vital to making a safer, loving, more secure environment for our kids to grow and thrive.