"Stop following me!"
"I'm playing by myself. You're not my friend."
"Go away. I don't want you."
These are the phrases that punctuate Bub's play lately. Every so often I have to barge in and mop up the Pie's heartbroken tears as Bub flexes his muscles, experimenting with the newly discovered power of rejection.
It's a skill he's learned the hard way, in the piranha pool of the McDonald's PlayPlace Friday afternoon, when he spent half an hour playing enthusiastically, happily, with a pair of slightly bigger boys who plotted strategies to get rid of him, like telling him there was pizza at the bottom of the slide. "Pizza?" Bub exclaimed delightedly, and then raced down to gobble up the imaginary snack before rejoining his "friends," who I could hear grumbling, "Does he have to keep following us all the time?"
I looked on, paralyzed by the tunnel-structures that make direct intervention difficult, if not impossible. The younger of the two boys seemed friendly enough, but the older boy scowled at Bub, shoving him out of the way whenever he tried to join in. Bub took all of this as playful roughhousing, reacting only when the older boy turned to him and said, in a serious tone, "Stop following us. We don't want you."
"Oh! Sorry!" Bub replied immediately, scampering off to the opposite end of the PlayPlace. Moments later a howl of pain went up from somewhere in the bowels of the tunnel structure. "You stay away from me, you dangerous boys!" Bub yelled. When he emerged, clutching his arm, the younger boy confirmed that the bigger one had hit him. It's hard to say how Bub would have reacted to the "Stop following us" remark by itself, but the physical attack left no doubt in his mind. He had been rejected, violently, by dangerous yet compellingly powerful adversaries.
The post I would have written on Friday about this incident would have focused on my bewildering realization that motherly love doesn't actually help all that much in the face of peer rejection. Bub and I had been having a wonderful morning. He had been putting on a clinic in cute remarks; I had spent the morning exchanging amused glances with other adults as Bub received his Ice Age II: Dawn of the Dinosaurs toy with the words, "I'm a lucky man!" or greeted the little girl at the next table with the words, "I'm so happy to meet you!" Bub is a happy, extraverted child. His teachers rave about how polite he is; adults are invariably charmed by his artless optimism. Unfortunately, what works with grown-ups does not necessarily work with peers. Perhaps I should be teaching him to greet new acquaintances by pretending to fart on them.
As traumatic as I found Friday's drive-by bullying, I couldn't quite shake the glow from the rest of the morning, my gratitude and pleasure in the companionable little chap my grouchy baby has grown into. And it seemed startling, somehow, to remember how little my own pangs of childhood rejection were relieved by the balm of motherly love.
After three days of watching Bub process his feelings by rejecting his sister, I'm less interested in my own trauma than in his mysterious learning processes. Learning to recognize when you're being rejected is an important social skill. Even more important, perhaps, is figuring out what to do with that experience. Before my very eyes, my son has become ever-so-slightly less trusting, visibly determined to do the rejecting before he can be rejected again. It strikes me that the most magical and unlikely moment in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is not the owl mail or Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, but rather Harry's decision, after a lifetime of being bullied, not to join Draco's incipient gang of bullies but to befriend the underdog Ron instead.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
"Stop following me!"