My second grader called the neighbor kid a “big fat loser” the other day.
Okay that’s not even the whole truth. I’m embarrassed about the whole truth. He actually called him a “B.F.F.L.,” which stands for Big Fat F-ing Loser, apparently, an acronym I learned when my son explained it to me through shameful tears and desperate questioning about what punishment he was bound to receive.
I wanted answers. Where did he learn this? Had he said this before? Is this a thing the kids at school say? What else are they saying? What does he do when he hears someone else hurl this terrible insult? Does he know how this must have made the neighbor feel? How does he plan to properly apologize?
My biggest question, though, the one that kept me up that night, was this one: Is my kid a bully?
A few weeks ago, he got in trouble at school for putting a handful of dirt in a classmate’s backpack. Upon questioning him and his teacher about it, it seemed apparent that an anonymous open backpack left next to a pile of dirt where he was playing at recess simply appeared to be too good a receptacle to pass up. He didn’t know who it belonged to and he was remorseful that it hurt his classmate’s feelings when it was discovered.
I was relieved that upon inspection, the backpack incident pointed more to the likelihood that my son was impulsive than a bully. Impulsive feels age appropriate for a second grade boy. Impulsive feels like an error in judgement that provides a teachable moment. Impulsive feels like I can still pass as a mom who isn’t flunking.
I used to pray that he’d just be healthy.
Then I prayed that he’d sleep through the night.
I prayed he’d still feel loved when his little brother came along.
I prayed that he’d adapt easily to daycare, then preschool.
I prayed that his caretakers and teachers would be affectionate and patient and wise.
I prayed that he’d fit in.
I prayed that he’d continue to be healthy and thrive.
And now, the prayer for my seven-year-old seems to be, “Merciful Lord, just please don’t let my kid be a jerk.”
Sometimes it’s more poetic than that; more edifying. Sometimes it sounds like a prayer for kindness, or empathy, or perspective, or gratitude, or even to see others as God himself sees them, if I’m feeling real spiritual that day. But the truth is I that I just really don’t want my kid to be a jerk.
And the truth behind that truth, as long as we’re being honest, is that I’m afraid when my kid acts like a jerk it is a direct reflection of me.
Of my parenting.
Of my shortcomings.
Of my character.
Of my failures, in every area of my life.
When he called the neighbor a B.F.F.L., he might as well have announced to the world that his mom is a B.F.F.L.
I’ve read just enough parenting books to know that I’m not supposed to make it about me, though, so I kept the focus of the B.F.F.L. incident squarely on him. We talked about how frustration is unavoidable, we listed off appropriate ways to deal with frustration that don’t involve hurting other people’s feelings, we talked about standing up to bullies, and peer pressure, and how being kind always works in the long run. My son nodded and cried and wiggled uncomfortably. I told him that he’d lost all screen time and dessert privileges for a week, and he unravelled into a writhing, wailing mess on the floor. I wanted to do the same, but I don’t have that luxury, of course. I am the grown up, the parent, and I am supposed to be in charge here.
And maybe I am in charge, but I sure as hell am not in control.
Like so many times before in the last seven years, I find myself again in brand new territory. For the first time, I am more concerned with my child’s impact on the world around him than the other way around. For seven years I have been pouring into him, input after input in an attempt to raise him up, and now he’s out there, a big ole second grader, beginning to pour himself into others.
He is at once an extension of me—my actual DNA walking through the world—and simultaneously wholly separate from me. And I think perhaps the challenge before me now is to parent to the separateness.
Motherhood has demanded selflessness from the very beginning, and maybe this is no different. At first, motherhood demanded my body and my career and my time, and now it appears that I’ll have to turn over my insecurities as well; to resist the urge to make my kids’ bad behavior about me.
After he is in bed, while I am washing the dishes or folding the laundry or rifling through papers that need to be reviewed and signed and sorted, I will inevitably let my mind wander back to myself. I’ll wonder if my son has seen something in me that felt like permission to call his friend such a mean name. I’ll wonder if I’ve been raising my voice too frequently, or if I’ve been distracted by my phone too much, or if I’ve failed to praise him enough for his hard work and good deeds. I will indulge the urge to make it about me, quietly in the privacy of my own thoughts, and I’ll resolve to do better. This is the evergreen resolution of motherhood.
And that night, after I tuck him in and assure him that I will always love him but yes I am serious about the no screen time and no desserts, I will pray for him like I have since the day I heard his heartbeat for the very first time.
I will pray for his health. I will pray for his heart. I will pray that he would be kind not just to make me look good, but because he gets it, the real value of kindness.
I want him to be more than simply my son, I want him to grow into his own person, autonomous and inventive and smart and yes, not a jerk.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.