I used to read stories about kids being bullied and shake my head. Why is it so hard to stop, I wondered. You find out what's going on then you dole out the consequences. Simple. At least that's what I thought until it happened to my son.
Like the myriad curve balls parenting throws at you, bullying comes in shades that aren't black and white.
When I saw a child leave the school one day with an icepack pressed to his head, it never occurred to me that my little guy could have inflicted that pain. My sweet, scrawny boy who loves to cuddle but who gets easily overwhelmed and overstimulated. My little monkey who tells me five hundred times a day that he loves me but who struggles to exert control over his own body.
This boy who hugs and kisses and kicks and flails out of excitement and bewilderment. How could this boy, my son, be a bully? He wasn't the usual suspect. He didn't fit the 'profile' I usually imagined when I thought of a bully, and yet on more than one occasion my son had struck another kid. Another time he even tried to kiss him! The teacher understood that his actions weren't malicious, but were an unfortunate byproduct of his disability.
I knew he wasn't wilfully trying to hurt that child. But that's the thing about bullying; intent doesn't matter. When someone is hurt, intent doesn't even figure.
The other thing about bullying is that it feels horrible - no matter which side you're on. When I saw that boy with the icepack, I felt sick. Sad and scared and frustrated. How could my child do this, when I work so tirelessly to teach him to be kind and caring? I felt responsible, and desperate. How can I make it stop - now?
The school, thankfully, took the matter seriously and acted swiftly, but most importantly, with understanding for everyone involved.
Then time passed and the shoe found its way - as it invariably does - on the other foot. Eventually my son came home with a revelation of his own.
A boy, several grades older and substantially bigger, had kicked him. At bath time I saw the bruises on the backs of his tiny thighs. I felt sick. Sad and scared and frustrated. I wanted to seek out that brute in the playground. I wanted to speculate about his troublesome home life and all the ways in which his parents must be failing. But I couldn't.
The next day I noticed his mother after school. I wanted to confront her. I wanted to despise her, but how could I? She walked on with her son, her eyes downcast. I knew exactly how she felt because I had been her. I still was her.
We were one and the same. Doing our best to stick to a path whose terrain was at times rocky and was rarely clear cut.
All it was, was a sticker. A gold star not a whole lot bigger than a thumb tack. Yet it meant the world to a boy and to me, his mom.
Let me back up a bit. Last year my son came home with lots of stickers. Pretty much daily he'd descend the stairs of the bus sporting a sticker of some kind smack dab in the middle his forehead (his fave place to display a sticker). Typically, he hadn't done a lot to merit that sticker, except generally follow the rules the way most kids are expected to. Almost every day he came home bearing a sticker, so they had entirely lost any significance.
This gold star, however, was different. For a start, it came from a new teacher, at a new school.
When I picked him up that afternoon, the librarian rushed over to talk to his teacher and, oblivious to my presence, commended my newly minted 7 year old. Earlier that day a classmate had taken ill and was in pain. So the story goes, my son was a star, showing true concern and empathy toward his friend. Big deal, you may say.
Except, in this case, it was. My son has Asperger's Syndrome, or high functioning autism as it's generally called these days. Though extremely caring, he doesn't show empathy in the traditional sense. And it's this point that has given Aspies bad press. They are seen as cold, unfeeling when in fact, the reverse may be true. They may feel too much, and express that feeling differently.
But I digress. That star came at a time when my son had been having frequent struggles at school. There is so much going on for him to process. All the noise and chaotic excitement. All the concentration and listening. All the social interaction. There is so much required of him. Even though he's never officially been diagnosed, I suspect he also has ADHD since he's frequently impulsive and has trouble keeping his hands to himself. Sometimes the littlest thing can make him snap, like the lead breaking in his pencil.
Simply getting through the day and keeping his shit together is extremely hard for him. I can see the exhaustion on his face daily.
I know he's not the only one. Kids like him tend to get a lot of attention in the classroom. And as a result, so do their parents. When the school's number flashes on our phones, we go cold. We hold our breath. What now? or Not again, we think. We dread being pulled aside by teachers or reading notes left in student agendas. Billy did this today, Amy did that...
In passing one day I mentioned about my son having a good day, and his new teacher looked puzzled. There had been an incident, however she hadn't mentioned it because they'd dealt with it in class, her and my son. She didn't want to harp on about his challenges because, I suspect, as a mom herself she knew how that kind of reporting can wear you down.
Instead, this gold star. Experts say you shouldn't praise children. I'm no psychologist, but you know what? I think they're wrong. Kids absolutely need to be praised. They deserve to be complimented and celebrated - for the right reasons. I don't go on to my son about how smart he is, even though he's academically gifted. Still, when he got that sticker, let me tell you I heaped on the praise, hoping it would bring about more of the same.
And for one whole day I allowed myself to bask in the glow of this small thing my son had done right, instead of steeling myself against all the things he'd hadn't.
Image credit: Kim Siever