Friday, October 24, 2014

The Littlest Butterfly

Raising boys; its enough to make my hairs turn gray. Sidney has always had an independent streak which is simultaneously wonderful and frustrating. Whether it is picking out his own colorful outfits or the games he plays on the playground, he marches to his own drum and doesn't openly care what others have to say about it. This makes him less susceptible to giving in to peer pressure (which is a good thing) but this same behavior is also increasingly drawing negative attention to himself (and this is a bad thing). So here is the issue I am pondering as of late: how do I encourage independence, creativity and non-conformity while not exposing my son to undue ridicule, potentially being picked on or generally setting him on a coarse for a harder path through childhood?

Sidney is small for his age (its honestly in his genes) which in itself is going to make for a long and sometimes turbulent course through childhood. But why is this? It is all so unfair that boys are expected to be bigger and stronger yet it is acceptable, if not desirable, for girls to be smaller and more fragile in stature. So much of this is dependent upon genetics so is it that as a society we look look down upon smaller people (especially males) who really have no control over their height? Even at the ripe old age of five I see the games that go on in school and the taunts that are made because of size. Until recently Sidney has never let his small size stop him; he's scrappy and fast and is the first to jump into the game and try something. But in recent months Sidney has been asking why he is so small and when he will grow bigger. I encourage healthy eating and tell him that he will grow but he wants to know when. As in a date and time when he will be the size of his peers. I just don't have an answer for this inquiry.

Through a series of recent unpleasant events I've learned that Sidney is being picked on by one of his  larger classmates and thus his desire to be bigger and taller. This simply breaks my heart. This same boy--a fellow American--taunts Sidney by calling him names, teasing him until he is on the brink of tears and on more than one occasion has even pushed, poked and choked him in class. Sidney feels that if he was bigger he wouldn't be the object of this boy's attacks. I'm not sure this is entirely the case since physical size is only part of it. Mindset and personality are the other. As rough and tough as he can be, he is also incredibly sensitive at times. And he is still a little boy. One who will play with girls as long as other boys aren't around ("because they will make fun of him"). Sidney is a little boy who doesn't like loud noises and is afraid of the dark. He wants to be liked and have friends and his feelings can sometimes be easily hurt. But somehow, for some reason, being small, sensitive and with a strong streak of individuality has made Sidney the object of this other boy's torment.

The physical assaults are horrifying but it is the words that are the most upsetting, and leave the longest lasting scars, of all. As far as I know, the physical assaults are no longer happening and things have calmed down in class but the words and taunts are continuing. (Of course I am only hearing one side of this story so I am a tiny bit skeptical). Words can be easier to hide and in the vast space that is the lunchroom and even worse, the playground, a large, loosely supervised area filled with children playing and proving themselves the way growing children do, words are often the weapon of choice. He's asked me what certain words mean. Words that I don't want to repeat let alone put in writing. Sidney has heard them someplace and he tells me that these are words that this other boy calls him. I in turn find myself at a loss for appropriate words. I can tell him that these are words we don't repeat, that they aren't nice. I can tell Sidney not to use them in reference to others because he knows how it feels to be called them. Teachers can't see and hear everything and kids will be kids. But how much is too much? And most importantly, how do I instill confidence in my son while protecting him and realistically, not making him the target of increased negative attention.

But most of all I am angry. Yes, I am angry at this boy, and by default his parents, since he has to be hearing and learning about these things someplace. But most of all, I am angry and disappointed in our culture that sets stereotypes and stifles individuality. And I hate the fact that I actually found myself suggesting to Sidney that he not say, do or wear things that might make him a further target of ridicule. Am I no better than our culture by suggesting that my son needs to conform to these pervasive stereotypes? As a mother I want to protect him from harm but I also want to encourage creativity and freedom of speech. But like I said, I want to protect him....

So for the past few weeks Sidney's class has been studying butterflies. They've talked about the phases of a butterfly's life and have even watched their own cocoons turn into butterflies. Sidney has been mesmerized by this lesson and has taken to running, flapping his arms and chanting that he is a butterfly. Yes, my little camouflage clad boy is proclaiming independence by identifying as a butterfly. He does this at home, on the playground and the soccer field. He's also the same boy who continues to spend hours playing soldier, racing matchbox cars and trains like there is no tomorrow and then goes to sleep sucking his thumb and clutching his favorite baby blanket. He is only five, but......

What is a mother to do? His teacher can serve as a buffer in the classroom and I can at home but neither protects him from the realities of the larger world. If it isn't this bully it will be the next one. Sidney is small yet tough, creative and caring, sensitive and stubborn. Part of the beauty of our society is that we all have differing views, opinions, and expectations. We don't all have to be friends but we really should respect each other. This is something I can teach my son. I can also help him put a Teflon coating on his butterfly wings then trust him to fly.

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