Wednesday, January 14, 2009

When They Are Not Kind

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One Saturday morning I was in my PJs when the doorbell rang. Ignoring my disheveled appearance, my eleven-year-old daughter, Addy, answered the door. Our three Schnauzers joined her, barking incessantly.

“Sorry,” I heard Addy say, “I can’t hear you.”

The speaker repeated himself.

“Excuse me,” Addy said, “what did you say?”

“What do you mean what?” a voice bellowed at her. “It’s your mail.”

“Usually too nice” Southern Mom was now ready to ignore her at-home attire and give somebody heck, but the speaker, our local mail carrier, was gone.

“Did I hear him right?” I asked, repeating what I had heard.

“That’s what he said,” Addy answered. “Why did he talk to me that way?”

“What he said to you was inappropriate and not nice.” I said. I explained that she had done nothing to make him speak to her that way. She had handled the situation properly and I wanted to make sure she knew it. Her initial reaction was on the mark. Treat the offending person with respect.

Mom and Dad can deal with a pushy mailman if Addy can’t, but a kid confronted with peer group bullies has to establish her own power, more along the lines of believing in herself. “Who cares what you say. I’m strong. I know who I am. I don’t care.”

A child needs to be able to handle normal kid orneriness, but what if she’s out of her league, as was Mary Marcel’s daughter in Surviving Ophelia. Marcel’s daughter was picked on by some middle school classmates. “I was on my way to class when two boys shoved me against a wall,” she said. “One of them started punching me in the stomach. After a few punches I fell to the floor, then the other boy kicked me and yelled, telling me to get up. I could not stand, so I was yanked up. One of the boys repeatedly punched me. They left and I went to class and got in trouble for being late.”

Mary’s husband felt it was important for their daughter to learn how to deal with school situations. Her daughter minimized the extent of the problem, so Mary supported her husband’s decision, though she did try to help. She visited the school regularly, only later learning that every time she went to the school to deal with the bullies, the tormentors made her daughter pay.

There are times turning the other cheek doesn’t work. Some people are simply not nice. Think of terrorists here. You can’t negotiate with a terrorist. At times you can’t negotiate with a bully. Passivity only makes it worse. Sometimes the right answer is changing environments. You have options, and, as a result, so does your child. After two years the Marcels eventually changed their daughter’s school. Doing so made all the difference in the world.

Sometimes running away from your problems is in fact the best solution, but when the offense isn’t violent, when a child has to deal with mean words or unkind acts, I’ve found it helpful to say, “just is.” This reminds me it is the way it is and that’s okay.

After Mr. Mailman treated Addy unkindly I used those words. “Just is, Addy. We don’t know why the mailman was not kind to you today. It’s something we’ll never know. Just is.” Then I made sure we moved on, because I want Addy to know her power comes from who she is, from her choices about what she thinks and what she does, not from how other people treat her.

Allyn Evans
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