she doesn't even know

 

The kids were happily crammed into a crowded table at their classmate’s birthday party. They were carefully painting their plaster sculptures, chattering and bustling, sharing paints and cups of water for cleaning brushes.

Brooke was hard at work painting her plaster clown. From the looks of it, not a single color on the palate had escaped her brush.

From a couple of seats away, Katie glanced down at her sister and called out encouragement. “Brooke, you’re doing a great job!”

A little boy across the table from Brooke chimed in.

“Yeah, you’re doing a great job making a mess, Brooke. Nice mess. What a great job. You’re just dumb.”

He barely finished the last sentence before Katie angrily shot back. 

“Stop making fun of my sister.”

“But she doesn’t even pay attention,” he said. “Watch this.”

He looked right at my baby girl, diligently painting her project and he shouted, “Hey Brooke, DOYNG!”

She didn’t flinch. She kept painting.

“See?” he said, looking around the table at his captive audience. He looked smug, having proven his point. “She doesn’t even pay attention.”

I took a step closer, but a clear, determined voice from across the table stopped me in my tracks. I know that voice better than I know my own, but there was an anger in it that I didn’t recognize.

“STOP IT!” said the voice. “STOP MAKING FUN OF MY SISTER.”

“She doesn’t even know,” the little boy said flippantly.

The voice got stronger, clearer. “It doesn’t matter if she knows it or not. STOP making fun of her. You don’t make fun of ANYBODY. EVER.”

I felt like a raw nerve.

I was proud.

I was angry.

I was torn to shreds.

For Brooke.

For Katie.

For all of us.

Hot tears ran down my cheeks in the car on the way home. My stomach churned with the bile of anger and fear. Is this what happens at school? Is this Brooke’s life when we’re not around?

The kids are getting older. They’re seeing the differences. They’re seizing on one another’s vulnerabilities. It’s what kids do. Hell, it’s what adults do.

He may be right; she may not know. She may not understand. I’m not convinced. She sees so much more than we think she does. But even if she doesn’t know now, she will. Then what?

Can I protect her from the sting of ignorance? 

That little boy is not a bad kid. Not by a long shot. Later in the party, Brooke yelped sharply when the kids were crowded into a line. He was the first one to ask her what was wrong.

I’m debating calling his mom tomorrow. If I do, I’m going to start the conversation by telling her that she’s got a kid with a heart. I haven’t yet decided if it’s the right thing to do. It would not be an easy conversation.

But how else do we do this? If not by changing perception and talking to each other – building understanding one tough conversation at a time, then how?

I’m taking suggestions.

Anyone?

Beuller?

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25 thoughts on “she doesn't even know

  1. i guess it’s an issue of precedent. if you call and say what needs to be said, let the mother know what happened, why it can’t happen again (in your gracious, diplomatic Jess way)…i think it will make it easier to deal with when some other kid does the same thing. you’ll have another a round of battle under your belt.

    if you don’t call…sets a precedent. not a good precedent. it’s different for each parent…some people might want to let this pass for perfectly understandable reasons. you mentioned that over-all he’s a good kid.

    but.

    you’re jess. knowing you from these blog interactions…i suspect that if you don’t call it will gnaw at you. it’s the kind of precedent that will just stay under your skin for awhile if it passes uncommented on.

    i may be wrong…it’s a tough decision…but i know how deeply you feel things, how this might be a precedent setter…especially since, as you mentioned, the kids are getting older and this sort of thing will begin to happen.

  2. Oh, I most definitely think you should call. As a parent, I would absolutely want to know if my child was acting in this way. Because this will be tough for his parents to hear, disarm them first by tapping into your seemingly endless well of compassion and understanding. Tell them why you are calling – not to judge or to express anger but to honor a pledge that you made to educate and advocate for Brooke and all children like her. And that you see an opportunity to sensitize a good kid into an even better kid – and because you value all children, you would not want to miss this chance.
    Let us know how it goes as I am sure there will be lessons in that for all of us too! xo April

  3. I’ve made many a call like this, and I’ve never regretted it. Most parents are really glad I let them know and eagerly seize the opportunity of a teachable moment. A few have balked defensively or told me that their kid is none of my business, which tells me that the bully apple hasn’t fallen far from the asshole tree.

    I also make sure I tell my kids’ case managers when things like this happen, and they keep an extra-watchful eye out to ensure that the offending behavior is not being repeated at school.

    Sadly, there are a few kids out there who truly are “bad” kids, who will continue to bully despite parental and school intervention. At times like these, I’m grateful for the Katies of this world who make it easier for me to resist the urge to give the little bullies the atomic wedgies they so richly deserve.

  4. First of all, kudos to Katie for her strength and integrity.

    But then again, no surprise there.

    What surprises me is that kids continue to behave this way, and unless you make that call, his parents have no way of knowing that it is happening and HE “won’t even know” that he’s doing something wrong. Consider it a courtesy call. You’re stopping an infection before it gets septic and gets to his heart.

    I’m shaking, I’m so mad.

  5. I hate that kid.

    I love that Katie.

    But, man, I hate that kid, and all that what he did in that moment stands for. You see, him being an overall kid probably makes it hurt more, for you and for Brooke and Katie. Those are the kids we can’t simply write off with a shrug. The kids who are nice one minute then THEN, after appearing trustworthy and perhaps even thought of as a friend, take the time to humiliate when they think it will make them look good. I truly think these are the kids who do the most damage. And if I was his mother, as much as it would hurt to hear it, I would want to know. Because that’s the other thing. The other mothers – they don’t have to hover at the birthday parties. They can drop their kids off and assume that everything will be fine. Good for them. But when it’s not fine, they need to know.

    Yes, I think you have to call the parents, and you have to do it with no regrets. You have to call regardless of how they respond, and you have to tell them that what he did was – in no uncertain terms – unacceptable.

    That Katie, Jess. She’s such a gem. Brooke couldn’t ask for a better friend-advocate-sister.

    xo

  6. Ok, I’m going to throw out a very different perspective —but overall in complete agreement w/most of the commenters. Is it at all possible that this little boy also *wants* Brooke’s attention b/c he has a small crush? I remember being tormented by a boy in second grade who never told me until we were in tenth grade that he’d had a mad crush on me in elementary school. But I digress.

    Obviously, I wasn’t there to see or hear him so I can only guess. But perhaps he’s looking for attention in the only way he knows so far. There’s a great opportunity to help this other mom help her own child navigate the stormy social seas. He could actually turn out to be a protector/advocate for his friends.

    Katie? Such a fiercely loving and loyal sister. But I bet she’d stand up for anyone who needed an ally, wouldn’t she? Such an incredibly sensitive daughter you’re blessed with. BOTH of them.

  7. My first thought is not the popular one, apparently (every post needs a devil’s advocate, though, right?) — I think there’s a case to be made for not calling.

    And that case is: It sounds to me like Katie did what needed to be done. She turned the situation around, stood up to the kid in front of his captive audience, presumably the audience ended up on Brook & Katie’s side instead of with him, yes?

    I think Katie’s voice may be *more* powerful than a rebuke from his mama in this case, and that having mama pile on too might even be counterproductive, for this one incident.

    If, on the other hand, I heard from Katie that this wasn’t an isolated thing with this kid, that she’s seen him teasing on other occasions, then I’d feel much more inclined to make that call.

    Have you and Katie talked about the incident? If so, what did she say?

    And — whatever you decide, will be the right thing. There’s always so many nuances that your commenters don’t know, that you’ll be taking into account as you weigh it all and make the call… I mean the decision.. oh, whatever! :-)

  8. Oh, I hate when this happens. Years ago, I told neighborhood kids to leave my house for r-wording Nigel. I had unwittingly moved into a not-so-good neighborhood and knew that speaking to the parents would have been fruitless, mostly because they did not speak English. Fortunately we did not live there long. As Nigel got older, whenever I witnessed any type of bullying, I would take the kid aside and talk to him in a non-threatening way (difficult, at best). I would tell him that Nigel communicates differently because of his autism, and that it would mean a lot to me if he (the other kid) would go easy on him (Nigel). I tried to make the other kid feel like an ally. My approach seemed to work, but I think that really depends on the other kid. In this case, especially since he’s younger, I think you might want to take the step of approaching the parents. Katie is phenomenal, but this boy might also need a nudge from mom or dad.

  9. I don’t know how you made it through that. I would have lost it on the spot. And I believe these kids do “get it” they just don’t know how to react to it. I’m sorry you all had to experience that.

    I too believe you should call. Your ability to educate is unrivaled. I wish you the best of luck with it. I couldn’t get through it without crying or screaming.

  10. From a teacher’s point of view, while I agree that it should and possibly could be the parents that you call, if the kid is inyour daughters class at school I would also want to know. The reason for this is that if he’s acting on experience that she doesn’t react then it’s most likely at school that he learnt it. And as a teacher I would want to have the opportunity to make it clear that not only does this kind of behaviour NEVER happen at school but also, that it is up to us (the teacher’s and kids) to be Brooke’s advocate, to look out for her and make sure that no-one hurts her. He should have felt it was his responsibility to keep her safe from any taunts whether at school or out in the world, not an opportunity to show how he could say whatever he wanted and have her show no reaction. I’ll bet she heard and made no response because that was the safest reaction she has at the moment. She’ll know Katie spoke up for her – she’ll know and love her all the more.

  11. All,

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your collective advice and support. I also know I don’t have to tell you. That’s the best part.

    I also appreciate your anger. It sucks for all of us.

    I feel like I owe it to you to walk you through my decision. So here’s what I did. I’ll get to the why in a minute.

    I opted against making the phone call to the little boy’s mother. Instead, I chose to speak with their teacher. (The boy is in Brooke’s class.) We spoke first thing in the morning, before school started. She was satisfyingly upset. She gets it – she’s one of the good ones. She feels this stuff.

    She was eager to help. She was everything one would hope when making this kind of heart-in-the-mouth call. She immediately had a plan of action. She promised to be on high alert for a similar situation. If it arises (as I suspect it will) she will be all over it and I can assure you there will be a lesson in it. She also assured me that she would revisit the basics with ALL of the kids regarding respecting and understanding each other’s differences, how to use words respectfully, how to express their feelings, and what kinds of words are not acceptable – ever. There was more. That’s what I can remember.

    Now – the why.

    I had decided last night to wait until I had calmed down (meaning after a night’s attempt to sleep) to make the call. Luau very wisely suggested that before I do anything, I call my dad and seek his advice. I suspect he did that because he knew what my dad would say.

    You may remember that my dad was a middle school principal for 45 years. There’s not much that he hasn’t seen in the way of inter-parental interaction. He knows people, he knows kids, he knows parents – he’s seen nearly every version of these movies played out time and again and he knows how the different scenarios tend to wind up. Yeah, I so have the best dad ever! Anyway, he’s my sage and he knows of what he speaks. So I called Dad.

    He made an extremely good argument for NOT calling. I was disappointed. I was revved up. I was ready for action. Mama Bear was looking to change the world one phone call at a time .. GRRRRR. But I listened. Cause well, see above. He knows his stuff, people.

    Dad’s point was that there was some fairly significant downside risk in making the call. Aside from the expectation that the mom would likely be understandably defensive (which I dismissed believing fully in the power of my charms, thank you, April .. lol) there was a likely outcome that I would not have considered.

    He said that he’s often seen these situations backfire. Ultimately, thanks to an attempt by the parents to fix it, the kid in question winds up focusing all their attention on their target. In all likelihood, he said, the parents would not know how to handle the situation in a way that would deter him. They might very well inadvertently add fuel to his fire.

    For all the world, it certainly appeared that the boy was seeking attention with his actions. The great thing about Brooke’s presumed lack of awareness (I hope) is that he didn’t get it. He DID get it from her big sister, but since she’s not typically around them, that would not normally be the case. We’ve all studied at least enough ABA to know that when we don’t get attention for our attention seeking behaviors, we eventually give up and try a different tact, right? So, the idea of purposely focusing attention on all of this may well be counter-productive.

    The teacher will more likely have the tools to handle it productively, sensitively and appropriately. Thus, I defer to her for now.

    Sooooooo, in the end, I have decided that the real gift to my daughter in this situation is not the tough call, but the restraint not to make it. You’re right, M, it won’t be easy. I have found that parenting often is not.

    Thanks again for all of your support. Y’all rock!

    J

    oh .. and Pixie .. I’m glad you highlighted the point that this is not an inherently bad kid, which makes the story so much harder to dismiss.

  12. I believe Brooke understands everything that is going on around her.

    I also feel WAY sorrier for that kid than I do for Brooke. Only the truly disconnected, (and his world is seriously screwed up in some way for him to behave that way and I don’t care how together the family appears to be on the outside, he IS messed up).

    Good for Brooke for standing up for her sister. She is truly an amazing child.

    I would call the mother and ask her how many birthday parties she’s driven home from in tears. She’s the one I’m pissed at. It angers me when parents of neurotypicals don’t teach basic kindness and compassion to their children, (who have it so relatively easy compared to our kids). Then again, if you don’t have it/know it you can’t teach it, and we in the club might not have had it in spades before our precious kids came along.

  13. When I think of Brooke I think of that Verizon commercial where there is a network of thousands waiting in the wings to support her…an omnipresent dad (good gig though gotta admit), a loving, protective older sister, a former principal for a grandfather, and a mom that will and does do anything and everything for her family and Brooke’s “greater family.” I like her chances.

    Having been on the other side of a teacher’s call (my 6 yr old son hit an older kid on the bus b/c the kid called him a ‘weirdo’ for liking the Giants over the Patriots in the SuperBowl – hold the comments I realize this a pro-Boston crowd), I think you made the right decision. When my wife told me the boy’s mom called my son’s teacher I was annoyed at first she had gotten the school involved, but after I counted to 10 realized it is the respectful, professional manner to handle the situation. My wife then called the boy’s mother and my son wrote an apology letter to the kid (though it did end with “I still don’t know why you called me a weirdo.”), and everyone learned a little something. I hope you have similar results.

    I have a hard time blaming the parents in these situations because much like the kid doesn’t really understand Brooke’s issues, it seems unfair to blame them until you have walked in their shoes as well. One thing is for certain – teasing blows.

  14. I’m a bit late to the party and there seems little left to say here, except this: you did good. Start to finish, you did the right thing.

    And three cheers for Katie!!

  15. This is the first time I have visited your blog which I got through John Robison. I so have been there with my son at times kids being mean, but he never had a sibling to stick up for him. I praise Katie for sticking up for her BIG sister it shows what a special little girl she is also. I have three boys my oldest has Aspergers, which was not diagnoised until 5th grade age 11. I look back and see so many missed oppurtunities if we would have only known about it. Starting at age 3 in preschool his teachers did not know how to deal with him or me. Everything was negitive towards him and me for letting it happen. He loved to touch bows in girls hair they called him inmature for his age. We held him back in Kindergarten which was a plus ( I think). He is 15 a freshman in High school, straight A student, but socially I see a differnece. His brother is 14, yes they are close together which you would think he woud stick up for him, but Tyler has been so mean and Jack doesn’t understand why Tyler is the way he is he gives up on him. This leaves Tyler alone most of the time.
    I wish my boys were like your girls in the way of taking care of each other. I hope is my boys will be closer as they grow older and TAKE care of each other.
    Thank you for your insight I don’t feel as alone with this since I started trying to find answers on how to help Tyler.

  16. Another idea. If you want, you could take the high road. Be diplomatic…cordial…Jess-like. Let the teacher do her thing.

    Meanwhile?

    A few of us could talk with the kids parents. Lay out the way’s gonna be. Let em’ know: your little one has a posse. Some heavy back up. Bam!

    Yes! A good cop/bad cop deal. Could be fun.

  17. I would’ve pounced on whatever parent picked him up from that birthday party. But you did the right thing. I am not always capable of waiting till I calm down before opening my BIG mouth. Katie Rocks! Brooke Rocks! Jess’ Dad Rocks! oh and Jess YOU ROCK!

  18. I LOVE the Verizon analogy. Awesome. I’m thinking Luau played a pretty big role in your decision to take the high road, considering he talked you down enough to wait and talk to your dad. What an amazingly balanced team you’ve got going on there. I’m feeling a tad green…

  19. I can completely relate to this. We took my boyfriend’s son over to my brothers house the other night to play with my nephew. My nephew is 5 and our little guy is 4. While playing with a transformer toy, our little guy thought it was a garbage truck when it wasnt. My nephew made fun of him twice and then realized that he didnt understand that it wasnt a garbage truck. He stopped the teasing. This was brought to my attention on the way home and I immediately became defensive. My nephew isnt a bad child! We need to talk to him if things like this come up again. On the same token, how many parents see our little guy and think, what a misbehaved child! Hes not misbeahved either, he just requires more guidance and patience. My hope is that by playing together, they will learn from each other. Its such a hard road to go down.

  20. I’m late. As I was reading this I was about ready to come through the screen. What???!!! So sorry.
    I think you handled it very well. I’m taking notes…

  21. i felt so many things reading this! mostly a big WOW, jess, you are amazing! i love that you have the dad you have, with his wisdom and sensitivity, his steady hand. i love that brooke has such an amazing teacher. i love that she has such a FIERCE and loyal, loving advocate in her sister! those girls are stellar. i have such confidence in both of them.

    sadly, my dearest fluffy has bullied many a kid. many a time. including calling his cousin stupid and making mocking sounds in her face for not being able to read. she’s four. what does fluffy know? he certainly doesn’t do it because he’s messed up or because his home life is messed up.

    for this boy at the party, i wonder, where does his stuff come from? since he was sweet to brooke later? i guess you’d know if he had diagnosis. hmm, i keep thinking of gandhi lately, his ability to separate the action from the person.

    oddly, i was on the other side the last few days, feeling the heat of a mother’s anger at my boy for his ‘bad’ behavior. i can understand her concern. but it gets at my heart. i keep wanting us all to feel less crowded, to feel there is more room. does that make any sense?

  22. oh, kyra .. completely!

    we MUST all make sure that we remember to see the other side of this. it’s so easy to fall into the trap of anger. it can be hard not to pounce when our little ones are so vulnerable, but it’s not always the path that will get us all to a better place.

    this is exactly why i made a point of the fact that this is not a bad kid. we can’t chalk it up to ‘a bad seed’. it’s more complicated than that. it always is.

    we are part of a bigger community – all of us. and as we try so hard to teach our kids how to navigate their role in that community, we must remember that everyone else is trying, in their own way, to do the same. as my friend matt said “I have a hard time blaming the parents in these situations because much like the kid doesn’t really understand Brooke’s issues, it seems unfair to blame them until you have walked in their shoes as well.”

    i love that reminder. as parents of special needs children, we ask the world for accommodation or at the very least we ask for tolerance and understanding and compassion. but we also have to be the first in line to offer them.

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