Thursday, August 1, 2013

Coming of Age

Several weeks ago, I had dinner with some friends, two of whom, who I’ll call John and Linda for the purposes of this essay, are a married couple. During the course of the evening’s conversation, we somehow wandered into an issue they were contending with regarding their son. The details aren’t important but essentially, he had experienced a bullying incident at school; not in the physical sense but in the frequently as brutal psychological sense. Though the school had made some effort to address the matter, it didn’t seem like it had been truly resolved. As we listened, John and Linda went back and forth about how to address it with their son and were getting fairly heated about it. They were both clearly very passionate about the matter

To digress for a moment, every once in while, I’ll catch an episode of the sitcom ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ on late night TV. Though the show is sometimes problematic for me because the character of Ray’s mother is often distractingly irritating, I love the show because when you look past the annoying mom and even past the inspired craziness of what’s happening in any given episode, you’ll see that there’s a lot of profound commentary and insight regarding relationships, about how men and women think and communicate in fundamentally different ways, how two people can have completely different perspectives on the same set of circumstances and both be right.

John’s message to his son was essentially this: “If anyone tries to push you around, if anyone says anything about you, your mom, or anyone else in our family, you need to make an example of them. You hit them and keep on hitting them until someone pulls you off.”

I realize that sounds pretty extreme but the concept has some merit and here’s why. There are people out there who don’t understand or respond to anything other than brute force. They cannot be reasoned with and are not subject to negotiation, be they terrorist extremists or schoolyard bullies. When you couple that with the fact that children can sometimes be absolutely merciless in the way they torment each other, I can totally understand where John is coming from.

But…

Linda’s position was essentially this: “That’s what you would do, not what our son would do. That’s not the way he’s wired and it’s not the message we want to impart to him. We need to give him other, more appropriate tools to diffuse and contend with this kind of stuff.”

This immediately clicked on a memory for me with regard to my own kid. Last spring, my daughter Julianna had a brief encounter in school with a girl from our neighborhood who has bullied her in the past. She was about to head into the gym when this other girl ordered her, “Open that door and hold it. My hands are full.” Though Jules later told me the other girl wasn’t so burdened that she couldn’t have opened it herself, in that moment, she was kind of shocked and didn’t know what else to do, so she complied. This was an innocuous confrontation in and of itself; it did not merit a visit to the principal or anything like that. My daughter does not bear psychological scars from it and probably barely remembers it. What’s significant about the event is that it typifies the bully mentality: “I will do what I want and make you do what I want because I can.”

When Julianna told me about this, I carefully considered how to respond. In part because of the previous history between the two girls, I can’t deny I considered telling her, “The next time something like that happens, trip her as she walks past. She’ll think twice before she does it again.” And you know what? That solution probably would have done the job just fine. But I know my kid and I know she’d never do that; she has too gentle a nature. Further, although it feels good in the moment, it’s not the methodology I want to instill in her to resolve such conflicts.

So, I thought about what she might have in her personal toolbox to contend with such people in such situations. Finally, I said to her, “Julianna, you are a very kind and polite person and you speak beautifully, but it’s important to remember that sometimes, words can be your weapon even if you’re not using them to say mean things. What would have happened if you just looked at her and said, ‘What’s the magic word?’”

Julianna’s whole face lit up because she immediately understood that those four simple words would have put her in complete command of that situation. The other girl would have had to respond to Jules instead of the other way around, even if only by stomping past her and opening the door herself without answering the question.

It’s a solution similar in philosophy to Linda’s perspective on her son. It works for Jules. It fits her personality. She can apply the concept to other situations. It seems like a total win-win. And in most cases, it will be. But this does not preclude the probability that someday, Julianna is going to encounter someone who will not be deflected by such techniques. In response to her use of verbal wizardry, they will simply try another more aggressive means of controlling or manipulating her because they can. And on such rare occasions, I may well have to consider other, more assertive techniques to impart to my daughter; something more in line with the spirit of John’s take no prisoners perspective.

To be honest, I don’t know how John and Linda ended up resolving their conflict but it really doesn’t matter. Their struggle is the struggle of all parents trying to raise and protect their kids in the best way they know how. There is no manual to consult on how to do that. Often, there is no clear path to a solution to a given problem. Further, even when you think you have one, you have to carefully assess whether that solution is based on what you want to do or what’s actually best for the situation. Yet further, you have to resign yourself to the reality that sometimes, you’re going to blow it and your kid may well suffer for it. All you can do when that happens is help everyone back on their feet, dust yourselves off, move on, and hope you get it right the next time.

Kids are the not the only ones who undergo the process of coming of age. As parents, we’re doing the same thing every single day.

Thanks for reading.