Nothing can stay the same. We are evolving, changing, growing, and moving. Treasure the moment. Treasure your family. And treasure the changing of the tides; they can't be stopped--nor would we really want them to be.
My doctor told me that she was worried that my baby had stopped growing in utero at 37 weeks. She told me she wanted to do a C-section ASAP. She was due on May 15th. but on April 29th, my forth child, my second baby girl came into this world at 5 pounds 4 ounces, just 9 ounces lighter than her big sister weighed at full term almost 10 years years prior. Had she stopped growing or was she right on course to be the exact same size as her sister and me (I was another heavyweight at 5 pounds 14 ounces, full term)? We will never know but the fear that something was wrong with her made the 48 hours we waited before she was born almost unbearable. Thankfully, she was born healthy, and without any complications for her or for me. I only tell this story of her beginnings because I have found myself going back there over the years and wondering if her being brought into this world before she was “ready” has to do with a decision we made for her 8 years later.
My baby girl was and is very much the baby—the baby of our family of six, the baby of my parents’ six grandchildren and the baby in a long, long line of sibling-like first cousins’ children on my husband’s side. My daughter would be the baby of 20 cousins in that lineage. Needless to say, her feet hardly touched the ground for the first several years of her life, long after she was able to walk on her own. She didn’t have to speak a whole lot because everyone around her loved to cater to her every potential need before she needed to express one. And the fact that she literally was the size of an American Girl doll for a very long time (and is still not a whole lot bigger), and her voice was so high and squeaky that it made you smile no matter what she said, did not make it easy for people around her to transition to treating her like a “big girl.”
When it was time for her to go to preschool, she went somewhat willingly but often cried that she wanted to stay home with me. She was sick a lot; colds, fevers, ear infections, influenza, and countless unexplained tummy aches. But she learned and thrived in school; she made friends and she seemed happy and well adjusted.
When we considered moving her from the Montessori school she attended to the private school where my older three children attended, I remember feeling somewhat nervous. I knew she was bright, but she was often shy, reserved and somewhat “young” for her age. The first time through the admissions process, the school told us that she was not ready for the academic, social or emotional rigors of first grade at this college preparatory school. They did, however, offer her a spot in the Kindergarten class. We declined and decided to send her to the Montessori school that she loved for another year and re-assess the following year. She had a great year socially and academically and her teachers thought she would do fine in the grade she was “supposed” to be in. So, back to the private school we went to test her for admittance to second grade for the following school year.
Academically, she did just fine, and her classroom visit went relatively smoothly. We would have to wait to hear from the school about their final recommendations. The following day, after dropping my son off at school, I ran into the teacher whose classroom my daughter had visited. I asked her to tell me honesty how she saw my daughter fitting into this grade. She explained, “Your daughter was fine in my class, but I have to tell you that I had to take several of the kids out in the hall because I heard them whispering behind her back saying, ‘Why is a preschooler visiting our class?’ They couldn’t believe that she was 7, the same age as they were.” The teacher explained that the kids perceived her as much younger and treated her as less of a peer and more as someone who needed caretaking.
After much agonizing and deliberation on my part (my husband had much more clarity about the benefits of holding her back and the school had no question that giving her extra time would be hugely beneficial to her in every way), we all came to the consensus that it would serve her best to start as a first grader the following year instead of as a second grader, which is where her birthday says she “should” be.
But I worried. I worried that she would be teased for being older than most kids in her grade (in some cases more than a year older). That kids will ask her if she was held back, and will ask her why. I worried that it would seem strange that she will be 19 when she graduates high school and I even worried that her fellow college freshmen would give her a hard time for starting college at 19 and ask her if she flunked a grade. I worried about how she will navigate all of this, if it would bother her and how she will normalize her situation. I also had to look at how I felt about it all and find a way to reconcile all of this within myself. I also dabbled with some self doubt: Was it my fault that she needed extra time? Did I coddle her too much? Was I so overwhelmed with four kids that I neglected to help foster some of the developmental tools she needed early on?
But I realized that I had to let most of the above-mentioned insecure babble go so I could fully support her and empower her. I needed to find acceptance with the decision to give my daughter an extra year and look at all the benefits of this decision. “You are giving her the gift of time,” is what many trusted friends who work in academia labeled it for me. One extra year to be a kid! (And as I am preparing to send my oldest to college in a week, I certainly have a much better understanding of this!)
Fast forward two years to this week as my daughter is getting ready to start 3rd grade. “Mom, I know I am not the oldest kid in my grade because there is a boy who is older than me, right,” my daughter asks. “Right,” I say not quite sure where she is going with this. “Do you think there will be any other kids starting in my grade that will be older than me,” she continues her line of questioning. “I don’t know for sure but probably not,” I answer her carefully. “O.k. good. Because I love being the oldest. I also love being the smallest, which I will be this year because my friend Susie, who is a little bit smaller than me is not coming back this year.” “So you like being the oldest?” I ask. “I love it!” she says with a smile.
I can say now that I do feel that my daughter is in a good place and that giving her extra time is really what she needed and needs. Whether this has to do with how she came into this world, a bit premature, or how she was a bit coddled when she was young, we will never know. She is not in a hurry to grow up and that is okay. She sees her older siblings and how much more challenging and complicated life becomes. She is good with being a kid. And for me, I will get to have an extra year with her before my nest will be completely empty…but by then, I may be making room for grandchildren (if I am lucky)!
When your happy, well-adjusted 5th grader sends you a text messages from school saying, “Please come and get me. Everyone hates me. My life is ruined,” you know there is a problem.
Upon receiving these texts from my son a few weeks ago, my mind immediately raced back to my daughter’s 5th grade year when she first experienced bullying behavior by her peers. I explored the subject of bullying amongst girls and wrote an article in 2007 for Minnesota Parent Magazine entitled “Girl Swirl.” Six years later, and even after experiencing some relational aggression with my older son’s peers, I am still blown away by how incredibly mean kids can be to one another. Kids desperately want to feel included, popular and important and will go to great lengths to secure their spot in a group. When a group decides to pick on someone because he is a threat, isn’t following the leaders of the group, or the group simply wants to get their kicks or exercise power by putting someone else down, most kids will choose to go along with the group, rather than stand up to the group leaders. These kids are well aware that any one of them could easily become the next victim.
Recently, I got a call from the middle school dean who informed me that my son was punched in the stomach twice during a football game scuffle that occurred during recess. My son later informed me that this was the second time that he had been punched by the same boy. The first time happened during gym class when my son was sticking up for another boy whom the aggressor was teasing, and the aggressor punched my son twice in the face. This incident, however, was not reported, by my son nor the gym teacher. The boy who punched him was sent home after the second incident, which caused an uproar amongst a group of boys, many of whom were my son’s friends (or at least he thought they were). Since this incident, my son has been blamed for the boy being sent home and subsequently has been teased, excluded, and targeted as the guy to “hit” during touch football games, which often turn into tackle (which was against the rules but went unnoticed by the recess monitors). He has heard boys repeatedly talking behind his back and knows there have been disparaging texts being sent about him. Friends who he thought were his friends have changed their minds about him and have decided that he no longer requires even a “hello.”
The school is aware that he is being targeted, and I made some calls to some of the moms of the boys who are involved, with whom I am friendly. But not much has changed. My son, for the last few weeks of school, has felt much like an outcast when he walked into school. Thankfully, the school year is now over and my son does have some loyal and kind friends who were/are not afraid to stand with my son during this difficult time, even at the risk of falling victim themselves.
My hope is that over the summer, the boys will have a chance to cool off, forgive and forget, and that my son’s fear of starting 6th grade as a target of hate will not be realized. As my heart aches for my son having to experience these feelings, I find myself wondering, do all kids get a touch of this at some point during their adolescent years? Does anyone get through these years unscathed? And what is our role as parents to help our kids deal with these difficult issues surrounding friendship, group dynamics and social hierarchy…and bullying.
My son is not perfect. I am sure he is guilty of saying something mean to someone. I know he has changed his mind about certain friends and decided to create some distance. But to my knowledge, he would not go out of his way to deliberately hurt or exclude someone.
Actually, I take that back. He did try to exclude a friend/turned non-friend once, and I knew that as a parent I most definitely needed to take an active role to help guide him through some of his choices and refuse to allow him to act this way. A few months ago, when my son asked me if he could have a big group of friends over on a Friday after school, I was happy to comply. When I asked him whom he was inviting, I realized that there was a good friend of his who was not on the list. “I don’t like him anymore,” he responded when I inquired about him. “Ok, he doesn’t have to be your best friend but you are not going to exclude him from this gathering. It will be very hurtful to him and I am not going to let you do that,” I told him calmly. “O.k., then I won’t have anyone over,” he said. I told him that I was fine with that.
He did end up having the gathering, and he and the boy he wanted to exclude (but didn’t) reconciled their differences and are now very close friends again. As parents, we have a very important job to do when it comes to dealing with our children and bullying. We need to play an active roll in helping them manage their behaviors and their relationships, without trying to micromanage their every move. Their friendships will indeed ebb and flow, and feelings will undoubtedly be hurt sometimes, but it is essential that we as parents are aware that bullying is different than the having a falling out with a friend or changing friend groups.
Here are some important points to consider when dealing with your child and issues around bullying:
- If you get a call from your child's school or another parent who says that your child is acting overly aggressive toward a peer or peers, or if you see signs of this kind of behavior in your child, take it seriously. It is not a joke or a game or “just kids being kids.”
- If your child denies any wrongdoing, continue to have conversations with your child about your expectations of him, and be very clear that you expect him to be inclusive and to treat others with kindness, respect and compassion, and that it is not okay for him to do or say hurtful things to anyone, or to participate in any sort of “ganging up” behavior.
- Be a good role model and make sure that your own children are treating each other respectfully in your home.
- Check your child’s phone and social media outlets for evidence of bullying behavior. If you find that your child has been engaging in cyber bullying, give them appropriate consequences like taking their phone or computer away, and encourage and empower them to stop the bullying cycle amongst their peers.
- Explain to your children that bullying is serious, will not be tolerated and there will be consequences for this type of behavior. Make sure that they understand the kinds of effects that bullying can have on kids like the fact that “at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying.” (http://www.bullyingstatistics.org/content/bullying-and-suicide.html)
- If your child is being bullied, monitor him closely and watch for signs of depression or even suicidal behaviors.
- Advocate for and empower your child and teach him how to advocate for himself. Contact the school and other parents, and make them aware of what your child is experiencing. Allow the “mamma bear” to arise in you, and do what you need to do to try and make sure your child will be safe.
- Encourage your child to reach out to kids who are consistently kind. Even when you are beyond the stage when you can arrange play dates for your child, it is still okay to contact a parent of a child whom you feel would be a positive, supportive friend to your child and arrange for the kids to do an activity or a camp together.
- If you do these things and still feel that your child is not safe in his school environment, it may be necessary to make a change. Even when tormentors are threatened and disciplined by authority, there are so many cases wherein individuals or groups of kids will continue to find a way to make other kids’ lives miserable.
It is extremely painful to watch your child endure tormenting and exclusion by their peers, and it is also uncomfortable to know that your child is a tormentor (although, unfortunately these behaviors are often ignored or denied by parents). And it is very difficult as a parent to know what your role is in managing these issues. But whether you are the parent of a victim, an aggressor or quite possibly both, make sure your are dealing with these issues head on and that you working with your child to help him develop the tools he needs to constructively manage his relationships throughout his formative years.