Photo credit: http://gilbertianrueda.com
I don’t know. But this is what I did, and I followed my heart.
I remember the first time I realized my child was different. I also remember the first time he realized he was different too. It was when he told me that he is a fat loser that rides the short bus to school. He continued to call himself stupid and worthless before I interrupted him.
“Who said this to you,” I asked?
“The kids at the after school program,” he replied.
“Like every day that I go there,” he told me.
He is eleven years old. Eleven! Sometimes it feels like he is older because of his size, and how intellectually advanced he is, but he is only eleven, and he is telling me that he is worthless. And I can tell that a part of him believes it too. I was so infuriated, so outraged. I wanted to find the little shits that said this to him and stun gun them until they peed their pants to teach them a lesson. But that would make me a bully too. This was one of those moments where I felt tested as a parent, to this child that I didn’t give birth to, but is still part mine. I remembered him at three years old, and his adorable mispronounced words. His entire life had started to flash before my eyes and I knew I had to do something meaningful in this moment. So much advice nowadays tells us to share our own experiences with our children to help them through the awkward years.
I pondered for a few minutes. I thought about bullies and who they are, what happens to them, and what I could say to prove to him that he is not worthless. Flashes of sadness hit me as I remembered kids I had known either personally or by association, who killed themselves as kids over this and other trivial matters of adolescence. Kids my stepson’s age are actually killing themselves because they feel worthless. He is already on medication for his ADHD that clearly says it increases a child’s risk of suicide and death, so my panic to this situation felt intense. I had to think long and hard about my dreaded childhood years, to my dark past that I didn’t want to relive to find a piece that could help him.
“Do you think I’m a loser?” I asked him.
“No, not at all.” He said.
“But if you thought I was a loser, should I take your word for it?”
“No.” He said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because I’m just a kid.” He responded.
I told him about my goth phase that lasted from middle school through high school (and I guess I can admit now that I still listen to Type O Negative alone in my car). I told him the awful things people said about me, and to my face. And the story how a girl I didn’t even know threw me through a glass trophy case in 8th grade over a rumor. I shared the phases of having no friends, eating lunch in the bathroom, and my battles with feeling worthless. He looked pretty sad for me. He also looked surprised as if he didn’t believe me. He gave me a hug, and that made me smile, knowing what a good person he is growing to be.
But then I also told him how it doesn’t matter what anyone said. While these years seem like the most important part of your life, they aren’t. I told him about this girl that always picked on me. We can call her Lisa. She picked on my hair, my teeth, my eyebrows, everything you could think of. Every day she drove me crazy when I was around his age, before high school. I told him how I saw Lisa recently at the grocery store. I saw how interested he was to hear what happened to her. So I told him, she was the cashier that rung up my groceries. She is 33 and is a cashier at Shoprite. She is also a recovering drug addict who is missing about 4 teeth.
“So she’s a loser,” he asked?
“That’s not the point. The point is how much should I have valued her opinion about me? When have I ever mentioned her before today?”
“Never,” he said.
He asked me if all of these kids were going to end up like her. I told him no. While some bullies will probably grow up to be fat, stupid, losers themselves, some are successful and will make terrible managers someday who hopefully get fired for discrimination or creating a hostile work environment, but some will hopefully grow up to be better people because we all make mistakes. Regardless, there are a lot of bullies in this world, and they will test us. They will try to knock us down. But you need to remember that how you feel about yourself is more important than what anyone else has to say. I told him how my own parents said I couldn’t graduate college in three years and laughed, but I did it. I only did it because I believed I could do it when nobody else did.
I also went on to list the things I love about him: his beach scene paintings, how cultured he is in the arts and history, how kind he is, how funny he is, and how awesome he is. I told him that I wasn’t like the other kids either. I told him it will be hard and that he is such an amazing person that it would be a tragedy if he wanted to be mean like a bully. I told him to keep being a good person, and the right friends will come along someday.
The last thing I told him was never to throw the first punch, not ever, but to stand up for himself when someone else does because he is worth defending. He is worth everything.