Sunday, May 04, 2008

One of these things is not like the others...

A childless friend of mine recently said to me, exasperation in her voice, "Don't people KNOW that raising kids is going to be hard?" She'd been frustrated by the complaining of a single-mother friend of hers, who tends to go on at length with some bitterness about how she can't do the things she wants to do because she has a small child.

Of course, I replied, people know intellectually that raising a child isn't easy. But knowing that intellectually is a vastly different matter than facing the day-to-day rearing of an individual with her own personality and ideas and opinions -- hard enough when you have a partner, probably harder when you're doing it alone. When I talk to my mom-friends, we always agree: the things that can be the most challenging are the unexpected things, decisions or issues you just didn't see coming.

I have been thinking a lot about this conversation with my friend lately, because over the past several weeks I have been immersed in sorting through the difficult business of advocating for our daughter. Figuring out what your child needs can be a very tricky business, I find. When she tells you about a problem she's having, or about something that she finds really, really hard, what is in her best interest? Sometimes just listening seems to be in order, and the venting is what is needed. Do you encourage her to keep trying, on the theory that conquering the difficulty will help her feel good about herself? Or will that make her feel that you're not appreciating the difficulty and seriousness of the situation? Do you suggest different ways of handling the problem, to offer new strategies? Or does that suggest that she's not handling it well or will she take it as sounding critical of her choices? Do you intervene? When do you decide that what she's talking about really *is* something a 12-year old girl shouldn't have to handle on her own? How do you make sure she feels listened to, supported, valued, empowered, and defended or protected if it comes to that?

Sorting out which strategy to use when is tricky, I tell you.

And lately, I have been grappling with another layer to the whole business: how to cope with the adults (like teachers and school staff and principals) who view YOU as a problem because you're standing in front of them advocating to get what your child needs. Some people are great, of course, and dedicated, and empathetic, and sensitive to the fact that not every kid is the same and some are pretty darned different from the rest of the pack. But some kids are pretty sensitive, and some adults are not.

I'm talking in generalities here, because I've been addressing this stuff in regard to a host of different issues. But one example crystalized the issue for me. During a recent overnight class field trip, one of the girls in her class (we'll call her Ann) had her birthday. And at dinner that night, some of her friends assembled a cake for her by putting a bunch of individual cafeteria-cake-squares onto a plate. We were in a big cafeteria, and as we started to sing Happy Birthday to Ann, the kids from all over the room -- not just the ones in our class -- gathered around to sing and watch. And just as the singing ended, two of Ann's friends reached over and shoved her face down into the cake.

There was much laughing and excited shrieking from the onlooking kids. And Ann came up, frosting everywhere on her face and hair, looking hugely embarrassed but smiling faintly, as if trying to see the joke and be a good sport about it.

Me, I gasped in horror. At 12, among a big crowd of peers, I'd have been mortified and humiliated if that had been done to me. The mom sitting next to me looked similarly aghast.

The teacher, sitting to my right, smiled affectionately at the group. "Ann is smiling," she said, "So I'm not going to worry about it."

Frankly, her reaction horrified me even more. It seemed pretty clear to me that the situation called for some immediate discipline -- at least the forceful message that those sorts of pranks are inappropriate and hurtful. I said, "I thought that was a really mean thing to do to someone they call their friend." But still, the teacher smiled, and again said that since Ann didn't "seem upset," she didn't think there was a problem.

So here's the thing: my daughter has been telling me about how this teacher just "doesn't deal with stuff." So when she, or any other kid, feels that they have a problem, they don't talk to the teacher because she doesn't do anything about it. That's my child's perception, anyway, and from what I'm learning from other parents, she's not the only one who feels that way. There are kids in that class who spend each day worrying about what's going to happen -- what other kids might do to anyone else -- and even though nothing happens on any given day, they're stressing out about it because as far as they can tell, the limits are pretty darned loose.

Now, my daughter isn't the sort of kid to let stuff roll off of her. She can fret and worry and get a pretty good stomach ache going over things. And, after seeing various episodes on our school field trip, I have a whole new understanding of why she's reacting the way she is. Just because she feels differently -- or is the only one who reacts differently outwardly -- doesn't mean there's not a problem with the classroom dynamic.

Anyway. Tomorrow I'm scheduled for a talk with the school principal, and I'm guessing (from past discussions) that she'll listen, and suggest that my daughter is unusually sensitive but that everything is under control, and I'll feel a bit patronized and not really heard, so I'll have to express my concerns a bit more emphatically to make myself understood.

It's just not simple, figuring out what is going on and knowing how to do what your child needs you to do. But you do the best you can, and that's all we parents can do.


  1. Caroline is lucky to have an advocate like you on her side. I hope that she sees your efforts on her behalf, even if they are ineffectual at this juncture. Worst case scenario, she's learning that just as kids are different, so are adults, and there are some that are better problem solvers than others.

  2. Middle school is so very hard as children learn their social skills. I too am one of the sensitive ones, so I can feel their pain. I feel your pain too, as I too grappled with how much to help my daughter when she went through that time.

    On the other hand, I think it would have been up to Ann to say that being treated that way is not okay. Lots of kids (and adults - think wedding cake) are perfectly okay with these kinds of pranks - and the teacher shouldn't blow something like this out of proportion. Instead of teaching the world how to deal with Ann, Ann needs to learn how to deal with the world.

  3. Thats not a prank. Its assault! At the very least it is humiliating someone and behaving in a way which is not socially acceptable. Just becuase Ann decided to put a brave face on so as not to lose even more face amongs her friends does not mean it is not a horrible thing to do. I can see that 12 year olds might not have thought it through and might need to be assisted to see how it would feel to be on the otherside of that and I can see that even though it is an assult ( under UK law anyway!) prosecution is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. But it is my view that letting such incidents of bullying go by uncensored puts out the lesson that it is OK to behave thoughtlessly and violently. And we all know where that can lead. Ann may well benefit from being equipped with enough self esteem to be able to stand up for her rights herself but if she is not in that position as a 12 year old in a peer group then she needs to be empowered by an adult.

  4. A very thoughtful post - and perfect photo to illustrate. Wishing you strength for this meeting with the principle. All my life people have told me that I am "too sensitive". Happily,I have finally gotten to the point where I accept that this is tru and that is is a part of what makes me me. I would prefer to have a tougher hide - but don't. Blessings to your daughter for being "special"!

  5. We had a situation in a private school my children attended where the teacher just did not like my son. she complained bitterly to the head master about everything my son did in class. He was much smarter than his classmates and pointed out errors in the teacher's boardwork examples. He was always right. Teacher always wrong when he pointed anything out. I had to threaten to "go public" regarding the teacher. The solution was so simple really. My son was moved to another classroom and another grade. No problems ever again. Can your daughter be moved to a different teacher's room?

  6. I think that teacher is encouraging a "bully attitude" for the ones that did the prank. I give Ann credit for not bursting out in tears (like I would have). They do all have to learn from their own mistakes, and keeping your line of communication open with your daughter is the most important thing. She probably finds like I do, that once you are able to verbalize out loud, you can almost solve the problems yourself. It just takes someone to be patient and listen, and that person doesn't always need to act on the problem.

  7. A very well, written and eloquent post. I hate to tell you it doesn't get easier. I am dealing with a high school age son - trying to prepare him to be on his own and encourage him to advocate for himself, while making sure to step in when issues that might affect his future appear. Constantly walking a tightrope - and trying not to constantly second guess my own decisions.

    Hang in there! In the end, do the best you can at every ju

  8. I had more problems with my son, but maybe it is first child syndrome. At any rate, I think the mean girl thing is much more rampant now, but I remember being taunted and bullied when I was in school. Perhaps, what doesn't do us in, does make us stronger. You and Caroline will get through this and because she has you and Roger, she will be ok.

    It is a long way off for you, but turning 30 was the turning point for our kids — they seemed to no longer need us to get through the tough times.

  9. I agree. It is so hard! And you never really know if you've made the right decision. You just have to keep going. It sounds like you are doing a wonderful job.

    If you are talking to other parents about this particular teacher, could you ask one of them to meet the principal with you? That way the principal can't blame Caroline's sensitivity alone.

  10. Some people don't deal well with conflict, teachers included. However guidance counsellors do this kind of work all the time and they can and will intervene to prevent bullying or harassment. Discuss this incident with the counsellor and it is quite likely that s/he will work with the students involved and possibly work on helping the teacher deal with these issues more effectively as well. Good luck.

  11. wow, I was gobsmacked reading that. I had to go and check your profile to find out where you lived. I might have known it was good ol' USA.

    When are you guys going to catch up with the rest of the civilised, democratic world? That sort of bullying behaviour would have been treated as common assault here (in Australia) and no teacher or school would be allowed to fob it off.

    I've had a few battles on behalf of my girls at school. We've had teachers who were a tad below par, failures of policy and other problems (surprisingly more often for my daughter who isn't disabled than for the one who is), but the only time I had to contact the school about a bullying incident, the reaction was swift and effective.

    I hope your meeting with the principal went well, and you managed to get this sorted out.