Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Power of No

"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.

20 comments:

Omaha Mama said...

I watched a similar incident last week when a girl (who has been a friend for three years) pushed my B at VBS, not letting her sit on the chair beside her in the sanctuary. I had to make up my mind - either go over and intervene or let the girls figure it out. I stayed away, watching my B's disappointment and ultimate decision to go sit somewhere else. It's hard to watch your kids' rejection. I was just grateful it wasn't B who was doing the pushing.

natalie said...

I think the balm of motherly love absolutely does help, if only indirectly. It doesn't soothe the immediate pain of peer rejection, but keeps it from taking hold of the psyche and wrecking self worth. If friends are all you've got, their good opinion matters at a much deeper level.

Mary-LUE said...

You're killing me! Poor Bub. Poor Pie. Poor Bea. (Poor me cuz I think I'm reacting to my own rejection issues!)

Now that I've processed THAT. You are amazing Bea... to recognize what you do and put it together the way you do. Your children are blessed to have you their mommy.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

My son is not much like yours -- mine is a loner -- but social situations can bewilder him in the same way. At summer camp last week he hid under a table & the counselors had a hard time getting him to come out. Last year his teacher said she thought he had "sensory dysfunction." I'm not sure about that but I like having a label for it.

Anyway I wrote this for you.

Swistle said...

Ug, so painful!

I agree with Natalie that motherlove does help, more like years of good food than like a balm for a wound. It doesn't cause immunity, but it helps build it up.

I have one who is being rejected but isn't understanding it. I recognize it when he tells me about it---but I wonder if I'm supposed to explain it or not. Sometimes I don't like parenting.

Sue said...

My seven year old is dealing with this right now - her best friend has decided another girl in the neighborhood is far more interesting. It's a painful experience for her. I hate seeing her have to deal with rejection. I wish there was a way to protect her from it, but there isn't, and I'm not sure I would be doing her any favors if I tried to. So instead, I let her be sad, and help her to find other girls in the neighborhood to play with. It doesn't take away what has happened, but it distracts her, and she does find solace in new friends.

Still, as a parent, I'm having a tough time dealing with it. I'm surprised by how very, very, very angry I am. I'm so mad at this little girl, this little eight year old girl who is just doing what eight year old girls do. She isn't being mean or cruel, she's just - outgrown my daughter. As an adult, I should be able to step back and not take it personally. But apparently I'm still incredibly immature because I'm so irrationally angry about the whole thing that I can barely bring myself to speak to her mother - one of my dearest friends. It is childish, and I know it is childish, and yet - I find myself brimming with angry feelings I haven't had since adolescence.

Jess said...

Oh, this post is so sad and yet optimistic. You are right that it is an important skill to learn and I am sure that after a bit more processing, Bub will have figured out how both sides of rejection work and will hopefully find balance somewhere in the middle.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I also want to add: It's the learning that matters, isn't it? You said once that your job wasn't to make your kids happy, but to help them grow into mature, socially-responsible adults. At that time you were writing about something you denied them -- that is, you caused their pain; but this post has the same conclusion, I think.

Mac and Cheese said...

There must be something about the McD's playground. My daughter was bullied there too, and came home repeating the phrase, "I'm a crazy girl. The boy said so". Ugh.

Jen said...

I confess...if a kid hit my kid in the playplace? I'd wait for him to come out and I would ask him to please stop hitting, that there was no hitting allowed there.

In the nicest voice, of course (heck, I hate confrontation, especially with parents!), but with very serious eyes. And not making a big deal of it, just stating the rules, you know, in case he forgot.

It's one thing to hit someone you know and play with every day (though still not good) and another thing to hit someone who is beating up on you either verbally or physically (again, not great, but understandable). BUT it's entirely another thing to hit a kid you've never seen before, who is younger than you are, and who is doing nothing more than following you around.

That's the kid with the big problem in this story. The others only have the nice, normal, sad problems of growing up!

Anonymous said...

This has happened to my children many times and the teachable moment, for me, is to let your kids know that they will never be able to control the actions of other people - they can only control themselves. If someone rejects them or is mean to them, and they are able to control their response and not hit back, I think they have honed valuable social skills for the future. Bub's response at Playplace was perfect - polite and without retaliation. What a great kid. The fact that he is taking it out on his sister a little....well, that's what home is for...a safe place to work out your feelings. Well done Bub!!

Merle said...

I really liked you post. I watched GB get bullied by his cousins yesterday (only for a moment right before we left) and I immediately went into a rage. Stop I said to them all. You do not gang up on each other. This growing up will be so hard for everyone. But hopefully, the incidents will be fewer rather than more and that we will all emerge relatively unscathed.

Allysha said...

One of my daughters hates rejection, it is so painful to her, she doesn't know what to do with it. As a child I learned to just ignore it and not care but she is different, and it's hard to know how to negotiate it.

I hope my love does make a difference.

Serenity Now! said...

My son too has faced similar situations, though I wouldn't exactly call it bullying as that's a bit more of a chronic thing. Small instances of disagreements, rejection, arguments on an individual scale by two kids that are basically strangers isn't quite bullying. Though one would have to wonder about a bigger kid that thinks it's ok to slug a smaller one.

My son has had a hard time reading those social cues that say "take a hike" so even at 7 he can still find himself bewildered after being rejected.

But then again, don't we all feel bewildered when we get rejected? When we can't figure out why we're the last mom standing at the park, or no one has asked US what we're doing for the weekend....

Kids can be so mean, I'm constantly surprised by their ability to find the weakness in each other and just poke at it...

HarryJack's Mom said...

Lovely, how you express all the things that have been happening in my own house and kids' social interactions lately. Thank you for sharing; I'll be watching to see how it goes for you all and to pick up pointers. Happy weekend!

Mimi said...

I'm glad, actually, that Pie is your girl and Bub your boy: she seems much better equipped, temperamentally, to deal with the even meaner but more subtle rejection patterns of girl sociability -- at least boys are pretty straightforward (even if they hit) so that Bub gets a clear signal and the script to learn (fart jokes) is so obvious that it's the project of a weekend to learn it.

But I would have freaked out. I spend *way* too much time being rejected by my peers as a child.

Bon said...

i have a hard time with this. O has just started a new so-called preschool where it's turned out that all the kids in his group are waaaay too young for him to play with (ie. non-verbal and not ready for pretend play or what give & take he's capable of) but the only time he gets to interact with the bigger kids (who are older, he has no f*cking peers in this place we chose b/c it was supposed to provide a peer group, sigh) is outside where there's no structured play and, as he said yesterday, "nobody knows my name." i know there's been rejection b/c of the dramatic change in his own storytelling narratives the past two days.

and motherlove isn't doing much, you're right. at least not in the short term.

hopefully they both will find their way and somehow learn kindness & empathy from the rejection, in time. and hopefully more freaking 3 yr olds show up at O's preschool next week.

Kyla said...

KayTar and Bub sound so similar, personality-wise.

Last time we went to McDonalds, my kids found vomit in one of the tunnels. *shudder*

the new girl said...

Oh, I can SO wait for all this stuff.

It hurts my heart, I tell you.

Ouch.

Reluctant Housewife said...

I can't believe that kid hit him! What a little thug.