As I sat at my laptop working, my 8 year old came up to me and dropped a crumpled ball of paper into my hand.
“Here ya go,” she said, with the same air of satisfaction as someone who’s just finished editing a manuscript or paying their taxes.
“What is this?” I asked, barely looking up.
“This is my system for dealing with bullies,” she announced.
We’ve talked a lot about bullies. She’s in the second grade now, and has already dealt with her fair share. With my son, who is now a teenager, bullies hit and pinched and demanded his spare change from the snack bar. Girls, though, are different. The confrontations aren’t usually physical. The attacks are sly and often quiet. The verbal jabs slide in between your ribs like a needle sharp dagger and then out before you even know you’re bleeding.
In kindergarten, Samantha spent lonely, friendless lunches and recesses trying to figure out what she did to make the other girls not want to talk to her. It was a mystery, because she had had such a wonderful preschool experience. She’s basically a walking ball of sunshine. She laughs often, gets very enthusiastic and excited about all sorts of things, and has a mischievous streak that makes her a lot of fun to be around (though my husband and I know this will likely lead to headaches when she hits her teens). She learned to be content with her own company. Since no one would talk to her, she’d pick an interesting looking kid and “play spy.” I asked her what that meant and she said she’d secretly follow that person around the playground and pretend she was a spy and had to watch everything they did. She laughed when she told me this – it was a game the other child didn’t know they were playing. It made my heart ache – her resilience and her calm acceptance of this strange ostracism. Later, we learned that a particular group of girls decided to dislike her and advised everyone else not to talk to her. IN KINDERGARTEN, this shit starts. I’ve read that boys pick on the weakest member of the group, while girls tend to target the most confident. They go after the one who doesn’t seem to need their approval and therefore needs taking down a peg. That was my Sammy.
Once, my son and I were watching Samantha on the playground before school. She ran up to another girl who was playing tag and asked, giggling and bright eyed, “Can I play with you?” The other girl looked her over and said, snidely, “No.” Then she ran off. It was breathtaking how quick and casual the meanness was. Samantha stood there looking sad and my son, then 13, quickly grabbed her by the shoulders, tipped her little head up and said, “Hey, Sammy. You know you’re awesome, right?” The sadness disappeared in a flash and she smiled. “Yeah, I know!” Then she scampered off to climb something, alone.
We worked all year with her teacher to try to figure out how to help her build friendships. I often suggested playmates – anyone I thought would be just . . . nice. Sometimes, they worked out and sometimes, after a perfectly fine play date, Sammy would tell me that person was nice, but not the one for her. She was lonely, but not desperate. She wasn’t going to hang out with someone she didn’t enjoy just because they weren’t being mean. She was okay playing by herself. I wished I’d had that kind of courage and insight in my 20s.
Eventually, Sammy found some nice kids to be friends with. Maybe they got tired of ignoring her for no reason. Maybe they wised up and realized what a fun girl she is. Maybe the fact that Sammy wasn’t desperate to win them over made them think twice. I don’t know. All I know is that the achy ball of fear and sadness and anger in my chest began to soften. She’s going to be okay, I thought. Then: No. She’s always been okay. It’s so, so hard to watch your kid go through this crap. You’d sooner cut off a limb. If I could have taken her pain into my body, I would have.
These days, she’s a big second grade girl, seasoned in the ways of the schoolyard and the social hierarchy of elementary school. She knows who the mean girls are, and she just doesn’t care. In some ways, the kindergarten debacle was a gift, because she realized she could deal with it.
The night of the crumpled up paper, she was telling me about Mean Girl #1 who had been picking on a kindergartner. “She told her that her mommy wasn’t going to come pick her up because she didn’t love her and she didn’t want her anymore,” said Sammy, indignantly. Her chubby cheeks puffed with outrage and she propped her hands on her hips. “What did you do?” I asked, because it was clear she’d done something. Sammy tossed her ponytail. “I told her (Mean Girl) to be quiet. I said, ‘You don’t know anything about her life! You don’t know what you’re talking about! Stop trying to make this little girl cry!’” The mean girl slunk off. The kindergartner decided it was all just crazy talk, because of course her mommy loved her! She said so every day.
“So anyway, that’s when I told that little girl all the stuff I learned about bullies. I call it PICAS. Poker face. Ignore. Calm. Act like you don’t care. Stand up for yourself. It totally works,” she said. Then, she made a googly-eyed face at me and skipped off.