Recently, my oldest experienced some teasing at school–nothing like what I would consider brutal–stories you read about on the web or hear about in the news. I think back to my own childhood though, and I tense at how painful these first experiences are.
When did playground politics start? My first real memories of teasing and feeling like an outsider were about third grade. It makes sense when I think about how some of us girls had already started developing and the internalized-shame that went along with that. The opinion of my classmates and friends meant a lot. I wanted to be liked, I wanted to fit in and when one or both of those things weren’t happening, well, let’s just say that I spent quite a lot of time home “sick” with phantom stomach pains and mysterious ailments that always seemed to elude the doctor…(I remember learning how to warm a thermometer so that it appeared I had an elevated temperature. )
My son didn’t exactly come out and tell me that he was being teased. I was sitting with him at the table, doing homework, when I criticized his penmanship–“It looks sloppy,” I said, not thinking about how much that would sting. He burst into tears and blurted out that now there were four people who think his penmanship is sloppy. And not only that, but he was being teased about his hair. He was being teased by his girlfriends–friends he’s had for a couple of years. I had witnessed this teasing on field trips–the rub is that the teasing seems to be critical in nature…comments that sounded quite a lot like the way a mother would criticize her own child when correcting behavior, grammar, etc.
Have we become so critical of ourselves that we project our fears of inadequacy on our children? Well, of course we do–most of us do, though I would venture to say all of us do–we are human after all. And harried, busy trying to be all things to all people.
Teasing is an interesting thing–I know the girls that teased my son and they are good kids. I also know that my son is a good kid and also a very sensitive one, even though he may not seem to be easily hurt if his friends are near.
Who knows, there may even have been some preliminary “liking” happening which made the teasing hurt all the more. But, because I had witnessed the teasing by one child in particular in the past, and because this was not the first time my son cried about it, I decided I would reach out to the parents of the child in question and tell them what was going on. I was very honest about not knowing how to handle the playground politics. They were wonderful in their receptivity and in talking to their daughter. I also talked with my son, to make sure that he knew that just because he’s being teased, does not make it ok to tease back (I do try to make sure I cover all the bases…)
I learned a lot from my first round of playground politics. I’ve become acutely aware of how I talk to my son–the kind of language I use, the amount of feedback and praise I use, my timing. I’ve also started to check in with him about how things are going, not only at school, but just about how he’s feeling about things happening at home, and the “world” in general. I had forgotten that providing for my kids emotionally was just as important as providing them with food, shelter, etc. It’s so easy for us to forget that without a solid emotional foundation, we put our kids at greater risk for depression and the even greater risks that go along with that.
As adults, we’ve all either internalized or learned how to deal with the bullying behavior of others— and let’s be honest, we can be on both ends of that spectrum depending on our state of mind. I think it important though, that we never forget those first stings—sometimes “growing a thick skin” is not what’s best for our little ones even if that’s what we were taught (goodness knows I was). Sometimes it is in those stings, the everyday “playground politics” that happen in our worlds, that we remember our humanity, and that of those around us, big and small.
Angelina Grab is the mom behind East Bay Moms & Dads, as well as the owner of Hannah’s Children’s Resale on Solano Ave in Berkeley. She lives in Oakland with her husband, Sam, and their two sons, Isaac and Malcolm.