Where does preschool honesty end and school yard bullying begin?
“You talk weird,” my four-year-old daughter A told me one day after preschool, while we were driving in the car.
“Yeah, you talk weird,” her twin sister E chimed in.
There is nothing particularly striking about my voice, my cadence, or my speech patterns. In fact, it is A has a slight speech delay, is sometimes a little difficult to understand, and often has trouble modulating the volume of her voice. We’ve never talked about this in our home and so I suspect that A doesn’t even realize that these traits exist, let alone make her any different from her peers.
Because of this, I began to suspect that these were words she had heard earlier that day, perhaps at school.
“Oh, do I?” I asked. I wasn’t yet sure if these words had hurt A in any way and so I decided to play along, to see if I could uncover what happened.
“Oh yeah!” They both yelled, excitedly.
“What’s weird about my voice?” I pushed on, hoping to find out more.
“It’s just weird,” they responded, backing each other up with the same words, as twins often do. They seemed to like this game, a game where Mommy talks “weird” and didn’t seem upset by the words themselves so I decided to press.
“Did someone at school use those words today?” I asked.
“Yes,” E said. “Becky did. Becky told us that we talk weird.”
WE. We talk weird.
My daughter E does not have a speech delay. In fact, she has been praised by strangers in public places for how clearly and eloquently she speaks. So, although I knew who Becky was likely talking about, I was relieved that my twins are young enough to absorb these barbs from other kids together. Four year olds are natural truth tellers and usually don’t yet know which truths can hurt. Having a built-in ally can be helpful as young kids learn to express themselves, sometimes in less-than-complimentary ways.
A didn’t seem upset by Becky’s words but I know this innocence won’t last forever and that one day these and other words like them can hurt. This experience left me wondering: where do the natural truth-telling tendencies of a preschooler end and school yard bullying begin? As a parent, how do we uncover it when it happens and then talk about it in the home? How can we give our kids the tools to handle bullying before it becomes malicious, before it gets to the point that causes some kids to want to end their lives?
“Do you like the way I talk?” I asked the girls.
“Yes,” they answered.
“‘If you like the way I talk, then talking weird can be a good thing. Right?”
“Oh yeah,” they said, understanding creeping into their voices.
It was my hope to explain to my kids that, just because one person puts a judgement on something, it doesn’t have to mean the same thing to everyone. Being weird often has the implication of being unlikable but the world’s most brilliant and successful people are weird. Bill Gates didn’t build an empire by being like everyone else. Lady Gaga didn’t get noticed by wearing J. Crew. Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Alfred Hitchcock, Dr. Seuss, Oprah Winfrey. The world is filled with people whose non-conventional tendencies helped pave their path to success.
The following week or two of full and fun days led to the inevitable: our “weird” conversation faded from memory. We were again driving in the car and the Beastie Boys came on the radio. (My girls love the Beastie Boys. No judging allowed.) I turned the volume up so we could rock out in the car.
“Hey!” A exclaimed. “They talk weird! The Beastie Boys talk weird!”
“Yeah!” E yelled, giggling. “They DO talk weird. Listen to how weird they sound!”
Like I said earlier, my girls love the Beastie Boys. And by love I mean that they LOVE LOVE LOVE the Beastie Boys. (Again, no judging.) Having been fully caffeinated, I had a moment of unusual clarity and realized that this was what my teacher friends refer to as a “teachable moment.”
“Yeah,” I shouted along. “They sound so WEIRD!”
“Yeah! Yeah, weird!”
“Hey wait,” I asked.
“Do you like the way the Beastie Boys sound?”
“Yeah! The Beastie Boys are AWESOME!”
“Yeah, they’re awesome! I LOVE the way they sound!”
“Me too!” I yelled, even more excited than before. “I love how WEIRD they sound!”
“Yeah, they’re weird AND awesome!”
Just like that, the word “weird” became linked with the word “awesome.”
For that one moment, I felt like mom of the year. I took a potentially painful experience and turned it into a source of pride. But then I realized that that they’re just four years old and their problems now are tiny when compared to what they will soon face. Right now, the worst thing that someone can say to them is that they talk weird. What will someone say to them a few years down the road? How much more will it hurt then? Will they still talk to me enough for me to uncover these painful experiences and help them work through them? And, most important, how can a parent uncover real bullying if it occurs?
Have you or your child had an experience with school yard bullying? At what age does it begin? What can parents look for and how can they respond? Share your experiences in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.