My son began 1st grade this year.
While I recognize millions of other first graders marched into their own elementary schools in the fall, I watched my oldest file into a new building to be part of a gifted program. The labeling of “gifted,” while opening his opportunities for academic advancement, left him vulnerable to teasing, I feared.
Xavier had already experienced bullying in our neighborhood. Other kids, some older, most tougher, all with much less adult supervision, verbally attacked him for having rules to abide by and actually following them. He is a child remarkably concerned with justice, and rules were a natural part of that understanding.
Teasing erupted when he remained in the yard as he was told instead of roaming the neighborhood like the other kids. He refused to use bad language, and as a result, fielded a great deal of choice words. He protested or ran to us when when the children began to damage property, ultimately damaging his street cred. He was periodically used for his sandbox, often being told he couldn’t play himself.
A six-year-old should never have to worry about such things.
I am raising my children on the street I grew up on, so I have a unique opportunity to compare the energy of the neighborhood today to what it was over 20 years ago. I recall a neighborhood that was safe and inviting. I remember walking home as a child, sometimes in the dark, only speeding up while passing the neighboring house with the a creepy attic window.
Altercations arose because we couldn’t decide whether a point was good or not in a game of street hockey, or because I wanted to play Flashlight Tag, but friends petitioned for Truth or Dare.
So, what has changed?
What is it about today’s parenting that produces such street-smart, brash children?
Less parental involvement and attention? Are parents allowing their children to fend for themselves while they bury their noses in computer screens or iPhone apps? Are we failing our children with simple lessons of respect and compassion?
Based on the behavior I witnessed in my neighborhood, I would surmise that was not far from the truth.
We stress communication and respect in our home, so we were faced with an interesting predicament: were our lessons leaving this little boy unprepared for “real” life? Xavy has always been a bit of an old soul. He’s far more mature than I on most days, and this fact bothers him to no end. He seems to have been pre-programed with an unparallelled sense of logic paired with the most gentle, sensitive nature. The bullying wounded him.
He just didn’t get it, and to be honest, I didn’t either.
The responsibilities of a parent don’t stop at food, shelter and clothing. We’re building little humans that need to exist in an often scary and chaotic world. Coping with the complexities of life begins with social interaction, and some parents are falling way short of the mark.
My partner and I discussed a course of action to help Xavier in his neighborhood struggles. How do you preserve the lessons of respect and honesty, while equipping him with tools to protect himself from harm? We had to explain to this beautiful little boy, that there are some people in this world who are mean, and sometimes it’s for no particular reason at all.
His step-father worked closely with him for a good portion of the summer. They engaged in roll-playing exercises to prepare Xavier for the bullying that had become a regular occurrence. I watched in amazement as my little guy took cues from my big guy on how to cope with insults, threats and pushiness. I didn’t think he had it in him, to be so brave, and it saddened me that he was expected to rise to the occasion in such a way.
If it had been up to me, I would have chased every single child away from our property and kept Xavier locked away. I would have yelled at them, I would have banished them from visits. I had to assess the urge to react that way, because who would that serve other than myself? How long could I shelter my child from the world? Xavier wanted to play outside, and it was our responsibility to facilitate that desire.
We watched like spies to witness Xavier stand up to those children again and again. We watched them leave sometimes, yelling final insults as they rode away on their bikes, but we saw them accept Xavier’s new found strength too. We watched, hardly containing our pride, as Xavier went so far as to tell some of the kids they must leave if they refused to play by the house rules.
In many ways, I felt this was unfair. We were put in a position to compensate for the inadequacies of other parents. We were pressured to dispel the beautiful naivete of our little Xavy before we felt it was due. We had to help him grow up a little faster.
In the end, those concerns come second to the safety of a bright little boy. Xavier being slighted of a few moments of innocence is a small price to pay to assure he exists happily in his own backyard.
His intelligence and inquisitiveness serves him well at his new school. He is surrounded by other children who are bright, well spoken and enjoy learning—the very qualities Xavier had once been ostracized for. Through the challenges of our neighborhood kids, we taught him he was worth being friends with, and that who he is right now, is enough.
Who he is will always be enough, and that is an invaluable lesson any parent can grant their child.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta