The other day, my 3-year-old twins made friends with a 6-year-old at the park. Their new buddy was a little small for his size, and apparently had older siblings, so he was pretty psyched about being the “big kid.” The three boys were hanging on a tire swing when a crew of older boys came up and insisted that it was their turn. My guys were ready to make a run for it, no problem, but their friend was not intimidated. And so the playground smack-talk began. It went a little something like this:
6-year-old: How old are you?
Gang of big kids: We’re 10. How old are you?
6-year-old: I’m 6, but my sister is 12. Yeah and she’s right over there.
Gang of big kids: So?
6-year-old: Well, yeah, so she’s bigger than you and she’s 12…so there.
The back-and-forth went on for a bit until it was clear the older kids would rather find something else to do than keep this dialogue going with a couple of preschoolers and their kindergarten-aged spokesperson. When they walked away, the three little boys were proud of themselves, feeling they had won. When the 6-year-old held out his hand for a high-five, one of my boys gave one immediately, but by the time the other twin caught on, the big boy was on to the next thing. Almost in slow motion, I could see the humiliation about to happen. I cringed as I watched the second twin raising his hand, just when the older boy started to lower his and turn away. Oh, ouch, diss! It wasn’t intentional, but there my little boy was, his hand still hovering in the air.
So what did he do? He high-fived his own hand, laughing in this forced, awkward way. He sort of laughed to himself for a few beats, like, “Oh yeah, that was intentional,” before running after his brother and the big boy, already on to something else. Seriously, I wanted to crawl into the sandbox and bury myself alive. I know it wasn’t really a diss, but I could see that my little boy felt it in some way. He probably couldn’t even identify why he felt the need to high-five himself, but he was clearly covering, maybe a little embarrassed, somehow feeling the sting.
Of course, he immediately forgot. He was over it in all of five seconds. As his mom though, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I started looking ahead to kindergarten and elementary school, wondering what it will be like for my little guys. When I was a girl, I remember being picked on a lot. I remember crying a lot, embarrassed by the fact that I was taller than everyone, with big, puffy hair and red glasses. I don’t want my boys to experience that. I don’t want them to be picked on or bullied. And if they are picked on or bullied, I hope so badly that they’ll be able to just brush it off. I wasn’t so good at that.
I know, I know, I’m overreacting. I can’t protect them from everything. It’s a dumb thing to spend any time stressing about. But seeing him try to navigate that awkward social moment just highlighted for me that, one day, they’ll be off on their own at school, where this might happen a lot. And when I saw how self-conscious he got, even at such a young age, I realized he may be just as sensitive as I was. As I clearly still am. Oh, my babies.
At the very least, I take comfort from knowing that they have each other. They’ll be at the same school, even if not in the same class, and they’ll have each other to sit with at lunch, to play with at recess. Someone will always have their back. They’ll never be alone. When I was in elementary school, I had a lot of good friends, girls I could run to when my feelings got hurt, who I knew would make me feel better. I just want my boys to have that, and they will.
The truth is, childhood is fraught with socially awkward moments, traumatic at the time, meaningless in the end. Every kid will experience them and, as parents, there’s little we can do about it. What we can do though is be there for our kids, and help them bounce back. We can explain that mean kids usually get that way because someone is being mean to them too (that’s a biggie). I think we can teach them how to defend themselves, with words, not actions, and make sure they understand that they aren’t deserving of poor treatment ever. Most important, I think we make it a priority to raise nice kids, who treat other people with kindness and would never want to make another child feel low. Then at least, even if someone else is making them feel badly, they always know how to feel about themselves.