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.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


I am very cross right now. Here's why:

1) Several months ago, I signed my kids up for soccer, having been promised (a) that they would be on the same team, and (b) that Bub's friend Jake would also be on their team. I had visions of warm summer evenings, sitting around with Jake's mom on a blanket and eating the kids' watermelon while they ran around on the field. Instead, Pie and Bub were placed in entirely separate leagues, and although the two leagues play on the same night, they are in opposite corners of the high school field, so I sit by myself watching one team while hubby sits by himself watching the other team. Meanwhile, Jake's mom hangs out with all our other friends who signed up late but managed to be placed on the same team.

2) I have so had it with soccer already. The universal consensus (and by "universal" I mean "the consensus between my husband and my mother") is that this makes me a bad mother, unwilling to sacrifice an hour of my time once or twice a week so that my children can Get Exercise and Have Fun. What I see, on Monday and Wednesday nights, is not children having fun. It is children being miserable and being forced by parents to "get back on the field" with arguments like "we paid good money for this" and "if you don't get back out there we're not coming back" and "if you don't start playing right now we're not getting any ice cream!" Why, exactly, are we doing this again?

3) Several months ago, I signed Pie up for kindergarten, filling out multiple forms both at the school and at day-care so that Pie can be placed in a morning class, with on-site care after school. Then, a few weeks ago, with no warning or consultation with anyone, the principal decided to scrap the morning and afternoon classes and move all kindergarten classes to the alternate day system. Not Mondays, Wednesdays and alternate Fridays or anything like that - alternate day: Monday, Wednesday, Friday one week; Tuesday and Thursday the next. As far as I can tell, nobody except the principal actually likes this system, but as an added bonus, Pie has been assigned to a class that conflicts with the on-site day-care, so every other day we have to drop her off at the Catholic school on the other side of town, while all her friends from day-care this year remain together in the on-site class.

4) The courses I've been offered to teach for the fall are in conflicting time slots, and after two weeks I am still unable to get any clear information about whether the schedule can be modified. Textbook orders are due on Monday, and I still don't know for sure which courses I'm teaching or what my schedule will be.

Why must I continually be subjected to minor inconveniences? All I ask is for sharks with fricking laser beams attached to their heads!