I had that conversation with Ben this morning. You know the one – that conversation that every parent dreads. The one where you have to tell your child that you will support his or her choice…but…
Ben graduated from his beloved Montessori School this year and is going off to grade 1 in the fall at a new school. After a lot of soul-searching, research, and discussion, we decided to put him in French Immersion, which means being bussed out of town, instead of our local English school. The combination of an excellent Montessori education and Ben’s innate gifts means that he will be entering grade 1 at an advantage, reading and writing fluently and with an understanding of basic math, and Ian and I have been very concerned that without something to challenge him, between boredom and his natural…uh…exuberance, he could be a real behaviour problem.
We toured his new school and met the principal in the spring, and Ben is super-excited about it, but the fact remains that he is going to be thrust into a completely new environment, knowing no-one and with no safety net of teachers or friends who already know him – And when it comes to Ben, there’s an awful lot of him to know.
Which brings us to The Conversation. Ben has been trying to decide what kind of backpack to get for school. He just got an Angry Birds pencil case for his birthday and he had planned to get a matching backpack, but this morning he told me that he was reconsidering and was thinking about Thomas the Tank Engine – Enter the Moment Of Truth.
What would you have said?
Ben LOVES Thomas. Ben HATES superheroes. Ben’s world view is one of friendship and beauty and kindness, not anger and fighting bad guys. In Ben’s world, if someone is “bad” it’s because they are feeling left out, and all you have to do is show them that they are loved and then everyone can be friends together. There’s no evil to fight. There’s no punching or yelling or explosions. The ugliest, the very worst word that Ben can name is “hate.” The most hurtful thing that Molly can do is call him “Bad Ben” – and then he pretends to cry and says, “You hurt my feelings,” and she apologizes and they hug and make up.
He is my sensitive, kind, loving boy who appreciates everyone for their own unique qualities and would never hurt anyone on purpose, and who feels every hurt so very deeply, whether it is being teased himself, seeing a classmate in distress, or even losing a piece of a craft kit to a restaurant garbage and weeping bitter tears over “Little Axle’s” imagined pain at being tossed into the dumpster.
And he wants to bring a Thomas backpack to Grade One, where he will walk through the door on the first day of school, smiling confidently, into what I imagine to be a towering mob of larger-than life cartoon villains brandishing Spiderman and Sponge-Bob Squarepants gear and laughing at my little boy.
What would you have said?
My heart hurt just thinking about it. Do I get the Thomas backpack and hope for the best but imagine the worst, where that first day of school leads to a year of my beautiful, sensitive, loving, giant-hearted little boy being broken down, losing that amazing spark of wonderfulness that makes him who he is?
Or do I have The Conversation – the one where I have to destroy that innocence and tell him that there are people in this world who want to hurt you; who won’t respond to “That hurts my feelings,” with an apology and a hug but rather with a cruel laugh and continued taunts. Would my words be the splash of cold water that snuffs out that spark anyway?
What would you have said?
As gently as I could, I explained. “Remember, bud, how sometimes your friends at school would say that some things, like some shows, were baby things? When you go to your new school, you’re going to meet a lot of new friends, and some of them might be like that too. And I know that you are strong and brave and that you would be okay even if people did tease you, but I know that sometimes if people tease you it makes you feel sad. I’m a little worried that if you got a Thomas backpack, that’s one of those things that kids at your new school might tease about. I was thinking that Angry Birds is a good idea for a backpack because it’s something that people of all ages like, even grown-ups, so I don’t think that anyone would tease about that. But it is your decision, and I know you love Thomas and that you would be okay even if people teased you because YOU know that Thomas isn’t a baby thing.”
Ben’s face fell, and my heart broke.
But I should have known that nothing…NOTHING can diminish that amazing spark that makes Ben Ben, and after a few seconds that spark fired up Ben’s insatiable curiosity and need to know more – more – EVERYTHING about the topic at hand.
“You mean like when Daniel* says that Diego and Thomas are baby shows? And when he told me and Eddie that he wanted us to spend Christmas in the hospital? That’s bullying, isn’t it? Mommy, why ARE some people like that? Why do they bully other kids?”
“I think it’s because sometimes maybe they feel little, and doing things that make other people sad or feel little makes them feel a bit bigger or stronger. And there’s also a thing called ‘peer pressure.’”
“Well, it’s when people see other people doing something, they do it too because they want to be like the rest of their friends. They don’t want to feel like they are they only one not doing it. That’s why sometimes if someone is bullying or teasing, other kids might do it too, or might not help the kid who is being teased because they are afraid that if they do that, they will end up being teased or bullied too.”
And then suddenly a little bit of that spark rubbed off on me and I had my stroke of brilliance: “But you know, bud, there aren’t just bullies. There are also heroes.”
“What do you mean?”
“A hero is a kid who is brave and kind and helps the friend who is being bullied, even if no-one else is. Remember when Daniel was calling you little, and Joey put his arm around you and said, ‘I think you’re big’? Joey was being a hero.”
“Yeah! And I did that for him another time!”
“Right! And that’s a way to you peer pressure to do good things. If someone starts out being a hero, and being kind, and making other kids happy, the other kids will want to do it too. And then the peer pressure will get everyone to want to be kind to other people.”
“I’m a hero with the little ones. Like when Molly hurts herself, and I run and get her ice – I’m being a kindness hero! You know, ‘To speak kindly is better; to think kindly is better; to be kind is best.’ We practiced writing that on slates at the pioneer school…
…Kindness Heroes! We can be Kindness Heroes!”
And that, my friends, was the moment I realized that I didn’t need to warn Ben about anything. He already gets it WAY better than I ever could, and he and his Kindness Heroes are going to change this world.
*Names have been changed.