Boys, Bullies, and Parental Fear

There’s a particular type of fear that parenting invites, which grafts past onto future, as in, I don’t want what happened to me to happen to my kid. You hope your child won’t be picked last in gym class for dodge-ball teams. Insert your own bad memory/fear here.

For one friend about to become a father, that fear looms as boyhood (they do not know the gender of their imminent arrival, and he’s hoping for a girl). Bullied, teased, generally not a “boys’ boy,” he fears a repeat for a boy of his. At dinner a couple of weeks ago, he said, “I wouldn’t know how to help him if he was ridiculed for being the kind of boy I was. I never learned how to deal with it.” By all accounts, the kind of boy he was resembles the kind of man he is: smart, committed, intellectually and politically engaged, caring and kind. Not athletic. While he knows that he’s living in a very progressive town where being a brainy boy is likely to be more tolerated than a more conventional suburb like the more conventional one where he was raised, and that so many variables are different—including that no child is an actual carbon copy of his or her parent—deep-seated fear is deep-seated fear.

Ever since our dinner, I’ve been reflecting upon how my three boys have evolved into what most people (I think) would call non-stereotypic boys. By calling them out as different from, of course, I’m revealing my hand in terms of what I’d call “boyish,” in the stereotypic sense. Taking responsibility for that, I’ll say what they aren’t: they are not constantly loud and boisterous (although sometimes…) and they are not jocks. They are not monosyllabic or unemotional. They are not hooked upon fancy electronic games (because they don’t have those gadgets; having said that, they do enjoy some computer games). They do not have crew cuts or feel—at ages 13, 11 and 6—terribly passionate about trucks, monsters, dinosaurs, astronauts or the military (in fact, at last one is a pacifist—and indeed, two like some sports and the same two did go through major toddler and preschool truck and construction fixations). What they are: magnificent individuals. If we’ve done something right as parents, it’s simply that we so enjoy each one. Their interests include environmentalism, politics, writing, art, cooking, ballet, theater and sports. Two have very long hair (too long, according to their grandfather) and the other went from long hair to above the shoulder just a year ago, donating his ten-inch ponytail to Locks of Love in the process. All these attributes, though, don’t really address my friend’s fear. The thing is, I had my version of that same fear when my eldest (the one who does ballet, theater, and cannot leave the house without a book in hand) was smaller. Back in preschool, his favorite game was pretending to be Alice in Wonderland, and his turning six-birthday party was a Mad Hatter’s Tea, during which he was Alice (in costume). Releasing my precociously literary, dress wearing, longhaired, pretty son into the world of elementary school, with playgrounds and gym classes and—I was told—the girls and boys not playing together (not necessarily true) after he’d spent his last year of preschool almost exclusively palling around with a girl was pretty terrifying. What if he was bullied for being this particular kind of boy and I couldn’t protect him? And if I was worried about kindergarten, what of, say, middle school or high school or the big bad world, where a bookish, small, pretty man with long hair (if he remained bookish, small and pretty with long hair) could be vulnerable?

Ezekiel got to kindergarten and was bullied. However, he wasn’t bullied because he was a slight and longhaired boy. There was a duo that overtook the playground, allied for power and indiscriminate about whom they bullied, scared everyone. More worrisome, there was a lone bully in his class, who was stunningly mean (in all my years of having kids in school, he remains in a league of his own; he moved away, fortunately for us). His meanness wasn’t personal to those he hurt. Even though I was distraught by how miserable my kid was whenever he had to sit at the same lunch table as this boy (one bullying behavior: he’d deliberately spill milk across the table in Ezekiel’s direction so that my milk-averse boy would flip out) and even through my fierce mama bear hormones, I could see the boy was hurting more deeply than he could hurt anyone else. I almost felt sorry for him some of the time; I did feel sorry for him most of the time, because something was terribly wrong in his life, I was pretty certain.

The next year, Mean Milk Boy moved to another state and the playground duo was broken up—each in a different class, their bullying capacity lost considerable steam—and things calmed down. Through our struggles, I learned that bullying tends to be about the bully (when a friend’s toddler bit infant Ezekiel, his mom famously said, “I realize it’s harder to be parent to the biter than the bite-e”). More importantly, it was pretty clear that we communicated well to Ezekiel that the bullying wasn’t personal, because he didn’t feel badly about himself through the difficult year. He felt upset, sure, scared, absolutely (and that was horrible for us parents). But he did not think: if I was different then this wouldn’t be happening to me. We urged him to use the adults to help him. Even at six, he was reluctant to enlist teachers’ help, at times, or unsure how to ask for help when the teachers might be otherwise occupied. We certainly brought Ezekiel’s struggles to the teachers’ attention (he’s our eldest child; we advocated early and often). We also tried (I guess the teachers would have to say how we did with this) not to demonize the bullies when we spoke to the teachers about Ezekiel’s struggles, nor do I think we blamed the teachers (again, you’d have to ask them) for the difficult situation.

Now he’s thirteen and I can’t say my fear of bullies is gone, to the contrary, I know they exist; I know the stakes get higher. I know, too, that Ezekiel is secure about who he is, and that is probably what will allow him to get help if he needs it, and to let the rest roll off his back. I’m certain my friend will see—boy or girl—his kid simply rocks. All the time and conversation and games played and pride beamed in his or her direction will be anti-bully sustenance—if needed.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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