There's a game that we play, my boys and I, when the sun goes down and we're getting a little stir-crazy. Max balances an overturned stacking block on his hand, or on his head, or at the edge of the couch, and I try to throw a ball in. At nearly 5 years old, he is mostly amused when I miss. And of course the baby just thinks that everything is funny. We laugh together when I narrowly miss hitting Daddy's favorite painting. Max pretends to fall over when the ball hits his belly by mistake. I talk endlessly about how I really should improve my aim.
Tonight, Max started counting to see how many balls I could get in the box before he got to ten. It wasn't many. He giggled when my time was up, and then suddenly he yelled out.
"LOSER!!! Loooooo-ser!! You're a loser Mommy!"
He saw the shock register on my face. He could feel the fun of the game being sucked out of the room like helium from a birthday balloon. And I couldn't stop the words as they came tumbling out of my mouth. "Who says 'loser'?" I asked. "Does someone at school use that word?" Max looked at me, and then at the ground, and quietly mumbled "Nobody."
"Honey, that word isn't kind," I said, as he tried to walk away. "It's OK if you don't always win, but it's not OK to make people feel bad when they're trying hard."
"I know," he said, and he took off in search of the next game.
I sat there with Baby Ben, and watched Max dart away. I'm not naive enough to think that preschool name-calling is anything new, but I was caught off guard by how mean-spirited the words can feel. Over the last few weeks we've been surprised when our fairly positive 4-year-old has come home with words like "dumb" and "stupid." My fragile mama heart wants to believe that Max isn't parroting words that have been used against him, but I worry that could be true. Of course there are worse things that Max could have said. And he has. We won't even talk about how he managed to drop the F bomb a few weeks ago, and that one was totally our fault. But this felt different. We've heard a few stories recently about how the kids at school are testing out how it feels to have the big, bold feelings that 4- and 5-year-olds do. Pre-K is a weird form of pre-pre-puberty that suddenly transforms chubby, cuddly, toddler bodies into gangly, awkward, strong bodies that push you away while grabbing on tightly to your leg at the same time. Pre-K is where our kids learn to need each other, to lead each other and to experiment with how best to hurt each other. I wasn't prepared to be answering such serious questions about hurt feelings, being left out, and the politics of play. Not yet. Not now. Not when they are still so fresh-faced and hopeful, so eager to be friends and thrilled to be accepting of everyone.
Last week Max walked into the kitchen and announced, "Lily says I'm not invited to her birthday."
"Ummmm... it's not Lily's birthday anytime soon. You're good friends, so I'm thinking that she will invite you," I offered.
"Well she did eeny, meeny, miny, mo and said I couldn't come," Max replied. Ah-hah. The infamous eeny, meeny, miny, mo.
I pulled Max in close for a bear hug and we talked about how sometimes friends say things that can hurt your feelings. We talked about what teasing is, and what it feels like to be left out. And I tried to reinforce the positive friendships that he has in his class. Every day, we walk through a different version of the same conversation. Be kind. Use your words. Tell a teacher if someone is hurting your feelings. It's normal, it's healthy, and quite frankly, it's to be expected. So why was it making me so angry? All kids experiment with what it feels like to hurt someone with their words. It's a healthy part of growing up, and even my very special snowflake will be on the receiving end of another child's learning experience at some point. In fact, he will probably be the one using those words on a not-so-distant day in the future. (And when that happens, please God don't let it be the F word. But if it is, call my husband.) Max has excellent, brilliant, empathetic teachers, and I know that they're actively addressing the growing pains that they're seeing with their students. But still, a parent can't help but worry about where those words land when they're hurled at each other on the playground. Do they take root in the self-esteem of the quieter children? Do the seeds of anger and sadness begin to grow now, at 4 years old?
It's normal for kids to experiment with using their words to hurt each other. Birthday party invite lists always seem to leave someone off. Max will overhear much stronger words being used on the playground someday. But I'm not ready yet. I'm not ready for this next step. I'm not ready to send him out into the brave new world of kindergarten and ask him to protect his heart from the pain that the world can cause.
Max believes that he can ride rocket ships. He plays garbage man, and robot inventor, and requests that we refer to him as SuperHero Max. The world that he tries to save with his "Spidey-strength" is a crappy one, let's be honest. It's dangerous, and unpredictable, and not always easy to navigate. As adults, we weave our way through the labyrinth of social politics every day. Whom can we trust? Whom do we lean on? Whom will we feel safe around?
We model friendships for our children. When we leave out a new mom at our child's school because we haven't taken the time to know her yet, we are modeling how to exclude someone. When we whisper on the playground about the bratty kid who no one likes, we are modeling how to shame someone else when we don't know the whole story about why they feel so angry. When we comment on someone's blog that "This is the dumbest thing I've ever read," we're showing our kids that it's OK to be critical for no reason (though I have to admit, reading that on one of my essays made me laugh). We are so far past common decency in our grown-up lives, that it's no wonder our children are coming home with an arsenal of unkind words. We Yelp our frustrations with service providers and restaurants, we lay on the horn because we're too busy to wait for someone, we "hate-read" blogs and "hate-watch" reality TV, because it gives us something to complain about. It takes a lot of energy to be that disagreeable. Energy that could be used to teach our children what kindness and compassion look like. We've barreled past the point of being able to police ourselves, apparently. Websites like The Huffington Post have instituted new comment moderation strategies, where readers are no longer allowed to comment anonymously. People allow themselves to say things that they would never put their name to, when they are able to wear the mask of anonymity online. It trickles down to our kids. Our little people feel it. They are watching us. They are watching us be cruel to each other. They are watching us speak poorly of our friends, and of ourselves. They are translating our anger into words like "stupid" and "loser," and they are lashing out at the people who are closest to them, because they are trying to figure out how this world works. Sometimes it doesn't work. And then what do we do? How do we explain that to our kids, so that they grow up to be the problem-solvers and the peace-makers?
When I tucked Max in bed tonight, I took an extra few minutes to smooth his hair down across his forehead where it was still wet from his shower. He looked so small under his dump truck blanket, and his sleepy voice suddenly filled the air. "Mommy, will you snuggle with me?" he asked. I climbed in bed with him, and he tucked his hand flat underneath my leg. "I'm putting my hand here so that I can feel that you're there," he whispered. "I need to know that you're still next to me."
I am here. "I'm always here," I whispered back. "You carry Mommy and Daddy and Ben in your heart every day. You are my best friend, and my kind boy, and I love you." I watched as his breath grew even, and the soft puffs of air escaped his pouted lips. I want him to know a world where no one feels like a "loser." Where "dumb" and "stupid" don't define children who learn differently, and our friends grow up to appreciate that there is something special in our challenges. Something useful. Something that we all need. I will teach him to be kind, and encourage him to see past words that hurt. I will arm him with strength, and resilience, and try to protect him from internalizing the pain of the world. And perhaps I will work on my aim.