Wednesday, June 18, 2014

oh oh, here comes mama bear

I've started this post before several times before and have saved each version to my draft folder. At this point, I think there are three or four versions, waiting to be finished and published. But each time I sit down to wrap it up, I stall because I'm not really sure what to say, or if I should say anything.

Am I being an overreactive mother that is quick to jump in to the fray and protect her children from the pains that are simply part of growing up? Or am I being a proactive mother who is trying to nip bullying in the bud? As a reminder, this is the first year that the triplets have been in their own classes, so from my perspective, it's difficult to tell whether my children are being hypersensitive, or if there really is an issue that has warranted my attention.  

For the past several months, one of my children in particular has really been struggling with the social scene at school. The issues that I clearly remember with cliques when I was in middle school … are now present in elementary school.   Third grade to be exact. 

Our girls, although they are triplet sisters, couldn't be more different from each other.  Carolyn is a voracious reader and Elizabeth is a voracious athlete. Their personalities are vastly different and their physiques are vastly different.  Elizabeth is smaller than average for her age; whereas Carolyn is above average and stands almost six inches taller than her sister.  We suspect Elizabeth will max out at 5'7" like me, whereas Carolyn will easily top 6'0 and may likely approach 6'2" like her beautiful cousin, Alice.

The one thing that our daughters have in common, aside from their sparkling blue eyes and dark brown hair, is a sweetness that I now see is uncommon among nine-year-old girls. Although they aren't always delightful with each other, it warms my heart that they have such kind spirits with others, especially those who are not in any way related. Last month, when I was at the school, I heard from multiple teachers that our girls are consistently good natured with their peers and whatever we are doing at home, We Must Be Doing Right.  It was a nice moment, so I asked the teachers to write that down so I could frame it and put it on the wall.

Despite their good nature, nearly once every week, Carolyn has come home from school in tears. Now, perhaps it is just the drama of this age, but there is a small clique in Carolyn's class, that repeatedly does something or says something or looks at her funny or …. insert issue here ... that puts my daughter in to the realm of virtually unconsolable.

Lest I think she is overreacting, I've been to school and I've seen it, first hand.  The third grade boys are wonderful little goofballs.  But the clique of third grade girls in Carolyn's class, which is approximately one-third of the girls in the class - gather around one particular girl as their "Ring Leader" and can usually be found rolling their eyes at each other and scoffing behind one another's backs.

I've provided my daughter many pointers for coping with the situation that have ranged from just smile and be nice to them, to steer clear of them. I've even reached out to the teacher and apprised her of the situation, which resulted in Carolyn enjoying lunch with the school counselor on several occasions.

A few weeks ago, when Carolyn was conveying to me the story of something that had happened (I can't even remember anymore, all the scenarios have started to blend), I asked her what lemons tasted like?  "Bitter!" she told me.  Then I asked her what lemonade tasted like? "Sweet!" she told me.

I asked her what was it that made lemonade sweet?  "Sugar!" she said.

"That's right," I responded. "Sugar is what makes lemonade sweet. So when you feel like someone is being mean to you, all you need to do is add a cup full of sugar and turn that bitterness in to sweetness!" Then we practiced by saying various things to each other and responding as sweetly as possible.  The next morning over breakfast we continued to practice.

"Your dress looks awful!" I said.  "I'm sorry you feel that way, it's one of my favorites!" she replied with a twinkle in her eye.

"I don't want to sit next to you!" I sneered at her.  "Well that's too bad for you, because I'm awesome!" she responded with a grin.

"How do you feel?" I asked, confident that I had provided my daughter with all the wisdom and coping skills that she would need to survive the social bumps of third grade. "I feel great!" she replied as I kissed her cheek and sent her off to the bus.

When she came home that afternoon, she was in tears.

"What happened?!" I asked.

Again, I don't remember what exactly transpired but it had something to do with that little clique of girls. When I asked her about adding sugar to turn her lemons in to lemonade, she cried, "Mom, please! I was throwing BUCKETS of sugar at them all day and they were still so mean to me!" 

I've since been telling her that she should avoid them, completely. If you see them coming, walk the other way.  Don't be unkind to them - but surround yourself with people who are kind to you, too. And keep your eyes on the look out for the other kids who have been victims of their meanness, because they could really use you as a friend. 

Yesterday, I was at school for the third grade party and noticed that the little clique was standing together when another girl from the class ran up to join them. Why it is that kids flock to these mean children I don't understand - but they're like moths to the flame who get burned. 

As soon as the girl arrived, the Ring Leader turned on her heels and walked the other way, while the other girls scrambled to follow. As they walked away, they were glancing behind them to roll their eyes at the little girl who had been left.  Perhaps it was me seeing a moment in time that was not at all what I perceived it to be. But in the context of what I've heard from my daughter - and seen with my own eyes previously - I'm fairly convinced, this was cruelty in action.  

Just as I was walking over to the girls to say something (what I don't know … I hoped I'd have it figured it out by the time I reached them), the whistle blew and they all rotated stations.  But today, I was at school again for the kindergarten party and because I arrived a few minutes early, I joined our third graders in the cafeteria during their lunch.  As I sat with Carolyn and her friends at the table, who felt like the band of misfit toys that had been scorned by the clique, my eyes met the Ring Leader's and she scowled at me before rolling her eyes and looking away.

Oh no she didn't!

Oh yes …. she did. 

Rolled her eyes, at me.

Before I even knew what I was doing, I flew out of the chair so fast the kids at the table sitting next to me jumped.  At that same moment, the teacher walked in to the cafeteria to escort her students back to the classroom and the Ring Leader ran to the front of the line as her posse fell in behind her.  Walking straight to the teacher and glaring in to the eyes of each girl in the clique, I said in a significantly raised and barely controlled voice, "I want you to know that I have observed these children behaving very catty and it is unacceptable. They need to know that I see them, I know who they are and what they are doing, and their unkind behavior will not be tolerated."

The teacher seemed surprised, which was surprising to me, because these kids are with her all day and surely she has to be aware of the behavior. Or maybe she is so consumed with her lessons that she really is unaware.  Or maybe she is numb to it because it is commonplace for kids to act like jerks?

In talking with my mother tonight, she was telling me that social challenges are present in every stage of life.  Even now, in her retirement community in Florida, there are elderly women who only engage with a very small circle of friends and ignore everyone else.  OK, so even at 80-years old our children may have to deal with cliques, so they definitely need to obtain some lifelong skills to manage this now.

MY GOAL is to demonstrate the kind of behavior that I want to see my children exhibit. I want for them to be kind, gentle, inclusive and non-reactionary.  I do not want to jump in and try to solve my children's social problems by having us all stand around in a love circle singing Kumbaya, because I know they'll need to figure this stuff out on their own.  But I'm keenly aware of the devastating effects that bullying can have on people; I still remember the names and faces of the people that bullied me almost 35 years ago, and I'm sure that's why I'm such a vigilante and believe it's critical to teach our children to be brave and SPEAK UP.

On the one hand, I can let this third grade party / cafeteria incident slide and pray that (me and) my children mature over the summer, and next year will be better.  On the other hand, I send the girl's parents a note, tonight, and tell them what I've observed and how I'd like to get together and talk. I really do sense that there are some issues here that if we can work out in a healthful way - could do a great deal of good for the children on both sides: my Carolyn and the girls in the clique.  That really seems like a logical first step.

And if the girls are still mean to my Carolyn next year, well …. then I'll just push them down the rest of the steps.