No matter how old I get, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to people being mean. When my kids were little, we knew a lot of mean kids. And mean parents! At one birthday party at our house, another kid’s mother said to me, “My son Johnny’s birthday party is next week, but your son didn’t make the cut.” WHAT? You allowed your son to attend my son’s party, knowing you were not inviting him to your son’s party, AND you felt the need to TELL ME ABOUT IT, in the midst of my son’s celebration? What could she have been thinking? I comforted myself by gloating internally because she had to buy my kid a gift, but I did not have to reciprocate. You know, it’s over 20 years later and I still remember the whole scenario, and it still hurts me on behalf of my son.
When I was a child, I started orthodontic treatment at the age of 9, way before everyone else, because of the way my mouth developed. The mean kids got a big charge out of calling me “Brace-Face,” and “Mouth of Steel.” Why? How is that enjoyable? I still don’t get it. When my braces came off at age 12, and everyone else was just starting, it would never have occurred to me to start making fun of them.
I’m not saying I’m never mean. I am sure my kids would attest to the fact that I have been mean to them, mostly in the context of saying NO when they wanted to do something I thought was unwise. But I’m not really thinking of that type of meanness. I am more upset by that cold-hearted meanness that serves no greater good (such as keeping my kid safe).
Is meanness something innate or is it learned behavior? As mothers, we have to teach our kids lots of things, but how do you teach them not to be mean? The Golden Rule is a good starting place, but it’s not so easy for little guys to grasp “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I think they need a bit more concrete of a lesson: “How would you feel if I said that to you?” We should try to point out meanness to them whenever we see it, so that they become aware of it, and maybe even feel inspired to step in to stop it.
The hardest thing is to teach them not to retaliate when others are being mean to them. Turning the other cheek is a tough concept for a little guy to grasp. The notion of karma, or “what goes around, comes around,” was more successful with my kids. I would tell them not to worry, because someday that bully will learn what it feels like to be on the other end of teasing. We would even have some fun imagining an even bigger bully coming along and teaching this current bully a lesson. It helped to diffuse their frustration and gave us some giggles in a most decidedly non-giggly situation.
But I do have my limits. When MOS-32 was in middle school (a notoriously horrible bastion of meanness), some kids decided to taunt him for having a big head. Well, big deal, we all have relatively big heads in our family. I told him it meant that he had more brains than those thugs who were pestering him, but he was still miserable over it. My male colleagues at work suggested that he beat the crap out of them. That is not my way and it wasn’t his either. He’s a very gentle soul.
But I could see it was not going to be something he could shrug off, nor were the meanies ever going to stop, as long as they had a target who didn’t fight back. Finally I said to him, “Look, I know this is wrong and you could be suspended for it, but I want you to say to them tomorrow, ‘Better a big head than a shit head.’ And if you get in trouble with the school, I will defend you.”
He was stunned. “Mom, I can’t curse in school!” I told him that just this once, I thought it was important to stand up to the mean boys in this way, so he could retain some dignity and not be their eternal punching bag. This strategy went against everything I believe in, and everything I had ever taught my children. Guess what? It worked. Luckily, this taste of triumph did not cause my sweet boy to become addicted to the joys of hurling insults at others.
I still see meanness everywhere, particularly when power differences mean the weaker party can’t fight back. We can’t tell the judge, or our supervisor, that he’s a shit head. We just have to take it, and that is the hardest lesson of all to teach our kids.