Monday, June 27, 2011

Teaching Self Worth

Bullying is a hot topic for sure but if I'm being honest I would say that it's a topic I never thought I would have to deal with as a parent of an extremely happy and outgoing son. He isn't the type of kid who sits shyly in the corner and waits for someone to engage him. Those are the types of kids who are bullied. Not my social butterfly. Or so I thought.

This weekend Brian and I were watching out the kitchen window as William played in the backyard with a neighbor boy who is two years older than him. William hasn't played with this boy all that much in the past mostly because he goes to daycare during the day preventing William from having the time to develop much of a relationship with him. But this boy is in the three-house radius of the neighborhood kid circle so he does show up every now and again in the evenings and on weekends.

I admit that in the past my interactions with this boy have left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I didn't like the way he played, the way he spoke or the way he treated others. It was nothing overwhelmingly obvious, just a subtle gut reaction. And those are usually the most accurate, aren't they?

The biggest thing I noticed was the absence of his parents. I am very good friends with all the parents of the kids William plays with. But I've met this kid's parents only once and that was last summer. I doubt they even remember me, my kids or our names. Which always leaves me wondering: Where do they think their 6-year-old son is while he's spending time in our backyard and why have they never swung by to say hello or see how things are going? A little weird for a six-year-old, right?

So back to this weekend when Brian and I witnessed some uncomfortable play going on between William and this boy. This boy clearly knows he's older and bigger than William. He also clearly knows that William looks up to any and all older kids and will put up with anything to have an older playmate. And he takes full advantage. He pushes William around. He makes William plays games where William is bound to lose before the game even starts. He engages William in pretend play where William is always the victim and the boy is the aggressor. He also isn't very good at following assumed house rules. For example, for no reason he turned on our garden hose and started spraying it around. This isn't a declared rule at our house but William knows he shouldn't do this at his own house and especially not at anyone else's house.

The parenting dilemma Brian and I ran into here was that William was not complaining. He didn't say anything to the boy and he didn't say anything to us. Easily either one of us could have stepped outside and put a stop to things or asked that the boy go home. But, we wondered, would that really teach William anything except that his parents would always be there to rescue, protect and swoop in?

Of course my mother bear instincts made me want to go out there and slap the kid. Hey, I'm just being honest. Rarely does a parent act on these instincts but I think we'd all be lying if we said we've never felt this way.

So what happened was this: Brian asked me to sit this one out. And I could see his point. This was boy's play and this was a matter best dealt with father to son. Had this been Lucy and another girl, I can guarantee the scenario would have unfolded much differently. That's just the nature of boys verses girls.

So after the boy went home Brian took William upstairs for a long talk. A long, stern talk. There was very little sympathy conveyed from Brian to William. And I think that was the right way to handle it. William wasn't in trouble, but Brian wanted William to know his self worth was serious business. And really, don't you think self worth should be at the center of every discipline lesson?

He asked William how he felt when he played with the boy. What did he like? What didn't he like? What did he think was right? And wrong?

And then Brian gave William the rules and tools for how he should proceed in the future. What he should say, what he should do and when it might be time to ask for help from an adult. But trying to emphasize first and foremost that William could do most of this on his own.

We didn't have to wait long to test out the effectiveness of Brian's lesson. A few hours later the boy pushed William off a skateboard in the alley behind our house. William nonchalantly came home a few minutes later and mentioned the incident in passing.

What did you do about it? Did you say anything to him? Brian asked.

Yes, but he just ran home. William said.

Later in the day the boy came over to deliver a piece of folded paper to William. William opened it. Scratched in 6-year-old letters were the words: "I am sorry."

I smiled and Brian smiled back at me.

Here's what I learned from this: Parenting is tough. It isn't all cut and dry like you think it's going to be. It's hard not to over-parent. It's hard not to be a helicopter parent. It's hard to first watch your kids get hurt or beat down so that they can then learn to stand up for themselves. I think we underestimate our kids. We try to be their protector and voice. But by teaching William that he had his own voice and could protect himself, he called someone out on their unacceptable behavior and it worked.

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