One Brick at a Time

One of the (many) great things about our local library is the children’s area. There’s a huge open area in the midst of displays of picture books, early readers, kids magazines, and middle-grade fiction. On the floor is a beautiful round rug with the alphabet displayed around the edges. There is a table with colouring pencils and paper, various wooden jigsaw puzzles for toddlers, and a selection of building blocks.

But something happened while I was there a couple of weeks ago. Something that left me feeling uncomfortable and awkward. Something that still has me thinking and wondering and questioning my feelings. Something that I haven’t blogged about until now for exactly that reason: I don’t know if my feelings were justified or if I’m too over-sensitive.

The fact is, I could be over-reacting to the words that were used. I’ve been accused of it before. So am I reading too much into this situation?

I don’t know.

So, after much internal debate, I’ve decided to lay out the situation and let you, my friends and colleagues, share your thoughts.

A couple of weeks ago, we arrived at the library just before lunch. Both boys were boys eager to explore.

Little Brother’s prime directive when we visit is to find the blocks, carry them two at a time to distant parts of the library, hide them in odd places, then grow bored and start pulling books off shelves and “stacking” them in the rubbish bin.

Big Brother’s prime directive is to find other children and join their families for conversations, games, story time, photos, and whatever else is going on.

On this particular day, there was one other family in the children’s area. The Mother was sitting on a couch reading a book and keeping a vague eye on the children. She had two daughters — one about 7 and the other about 3 — and they were playing quietly. Perfect. Big Brother immediately tried to befriend the 7-year-old. Their conversation went something like this:

BB: Hi! Are you colouring?
7yo:
BB: I like colouring. Do you like colouring?
7yo:
BB: My favourite colour is pink. What’s yours?
7yo:
BB: How about if we put these pencils in the middle of the table so we can all reach them?
7yo: …okay.

She was shy. That’s okay. Big Brother can talk enough for any seven people, so her shyness was no barrier to his friendship.

They spent some time colouring, then Miss Seven wandered off to build with the blocks. Big Brother tried to interact with her a few times, but she didn’t respond so he got bored and went away. Little Brother decided to throw blocks at anything that moved (including me). Normality reigned.

When it was almost time to go, I asked Big Brother to pick up some of the blocks Little Brother had left scattered around the place, and take them back to the play area. He did so. Then I heard a CRASH! and Big Brother exclaiming, “My bombs destroyed your building!”

Holy. Dooley.

I raced over, as you do when you’re pretty sure your child is being a menace. Yep, Big Brother was standing next to Miss Seven and the scattered remnants of her carefully constructed block tower, proudly surveying the damage he’d caused. Little Brother was watching. (Probably taking notes.) Miss Seven was devastated.

Devastated.

She looked up at the couch where her Mother was sitting, her lower lip trembling. And I felt terrible. Now, I know Big Brother and I can read him like an open magazine. He wasn’t trying to upset Miss Seven. He was being a five-year-old boy and trying to play with her. In his ideal little world, she would laugh and tell him to build something so she could knock it down. But one look at Miss Seven’s face told me that wasn’t about to happen.

“Big Brother!” I said. “Did you just knock down this girl’s tower?”

He looked over at me with big eyes as realisation dawned that maybe this idea wasn’t A Good Thing. “Ye-es?”

I was about to explain that it wasn’t the right thing to do. I was about to revisit our conversation about asking to play before diving excitedly into rough-housing. I was about to suggest he apologise. But I didn’t have time. Because Mother spoke up.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “It doesn’t matter.”

I looked at the Mother. Big Brother looked at the Mother. And, more importantly, Miss Seven looked at her Mother. I found my gaze trapped on this beautiful little girl’s face as her expression went from devastation, to hope, to resignation. Her shoulders slumped. Her gaze dropped to the floor. She didn’t say anything.

“Big Brother,” I said. “That wasn’t a very nice thing to do. How do you feel when Little Brother destroys a tower you’ve spent ages building?”

“Not very good,” he said quietly.

Mother stood up and turned her back on the scene, as though it was all too much for her. As she was leaving she looked over at me and said, “It’s not important. They’re just kids.”

A red rage washed over me with her words. It’s not important? Your little girl just spent half an hour building something amazing and a strange boy destroyed it on a whim. How is that “not important”? Yes, they’re just kids, but you’ve just turned your back on a little girl who was looking to you for validation that she was in the right. And you say it’s “not important”?

Don’t get me wrong — I would have been furious if Mother had started yelling at Big Brother. But to dismiss Miss Seven’s feelings like that? That’s not cool. But I fought down my anger and put an arm around Big Brother. “Do you think you should say sorry for knocking down her tower?” I asked.

Big Brother shook his head. “No,” he said. “Her Mum said it’s not important.”

And that, my friends, is my issue. In that one statement, that one tiny sentence, Mother sent a huge message to both her daughter and her daughter’s accidental tormentor. With her dismissal, Mother made it clear that Big Brother’s behaviour, which, while innocent in intention, was only a stone’s throw from bullying, was okay. Miss Seven’s hurt feelings weren’t important.

So I took a couple of deep breaths and said, “It’s never okay to destroy something someone else has created. How about you go and ask her if she’d like help rebuilding it?”

And that’s what he did. Miss Seven was already moving away from the blocks, but Big Brother raced over and said, “Can I help you rebuild your tower? We can make it even bigger and better if we work together as a team?”

She looked at him a moment, and then nodded. They got to work. Within a few minutes, they were laughing together and bickering over which block should go where.

I went and rescued the library from Little Brother, then watched and waited and thought…

Everything we do and everything we say impacts our children. When we tell them it doesn’t matter if someone upsets them, we’re telling them they don’t matter. When we tell them to turn the other cheek in the face of bullying, we’re telling them their feelings don’t matter. 

I don’t think that woman was a bad mother. She might have had a bad day, or a bad week, or had bigger worries on her plate at that moment. Her reaction may have been a one-off. She might have sat up all night thinking about it. I’m not judging her.

I’m judging myself.

Every day, in every way, we build our child’s self-worth and self-love. One brick at a time. Sometimes we use the wrong colour, or the wrong shape. Sometimes we miss a brick, or we try so hard to make it perfect that we destroy the natural spontenaity. And sometimes, sometimes, we get it just right.

The trick isn’t to be perfect all the time. The trick is to be able to look our kids in the face, and know that we’ve done the best we can and that overall, we’ve added more good bricks than bad ones.

What do you think? Were my thoughts justified, or was I being over-sensitive? What would you have done?

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27 Comments

Filed under Life With Kids, Opinion

27 responses to “One Brick at a Time

  1. At first I thought, “big deal” Now I am disappointed in myself after your explanation. Way to THINK Jo. Way to SEE. We have to think and see and be more aware with our chidren because you are correct in that they listen and hear and absorb. I didn’t even think about the fact that the mother totally invalidated her daughter’s feelings. That poor sweet girl. When I think about what I would have done in her place, I wouldn’t have just pushed it aside. I probably would have said, “I’m sure he didn’t do it to be mean” and let you take the reigns in the hopes that you would convince your son to do exactly what he did. And BRAVO to Big Brother for how he handled the whole situation. Fantastic job, Jo. If I need advice, I’m turning to you. (do you know much about teenagers?)

    • Thanks, Kim. I appreciate your comment. (As always!) In a way, I wondered whether I should be thinking “big deal”, but it just didn’t feel right to me. And as we all know, I tend to overthink things. (I would have done the same thing as you if I was in that mother’s situation. )

      As for teenage boys… don’t you just lock them in the closet and push food under the door until they stop being smelly and hairy? 😉

  2. Well, here’s the thing. My aunt does this reverse psychology thing with my son. When I ask him to do something he doesn’t want to do, she says, “Sure, mom!” And then, just as you’d imagine, he says, “Sure, mom!” In my eyes, it’s manipulation, but it generally does help cut down on meltdowns. I’m thinking it may be a similar mechanism. Self-preservation to a degree. Keep the kid from freaking out. Based on my experiences, that’s what I think.

    • I’ll mark down a vote for the “totally over-reacting” camp. 🙂

      I agree to a point. I use the same kind of technique with my boys quite often. If they forget their manners I’ll say, “Thanks, Mum,” and they repeat it in turn. It’s a good way to model appropriate behaviour. And in this situation, the mother’s first response of “It doesn’t matter” was kinda similar. I reacted more to the “It isn’t important”. Not because I think this was a bad mother, but because that type of language, if reinforced regularly, can lead to teenagers and adults who think it’s okay when someone tells them other things aren’t important. It’s not important if someone else takes credit for your work. It’s not important if someone treats you badly. Etc.

      Yes, this is a HUGE extrapolation from that one little scenario that was probably more about self-preservation. But over-thought extrapolation is what I do best. 🙂 (And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Dr Seuss, it’s that every single voice counts — both negatively and positively.)

  3. Hi! New reader and commenter here. I think you handled this situation in a positive way for both your son and the little girl. I am grateful that you refrained from judging the mother in your post. None of us are walking in her shoes. Maybe she was trying to teach her daughter to handle disappointment. Granted it doesn’t sound like it was very effective teaching on her part, but at least you were there to help her out. Maybe that’s the way you should look at it. One mother having a good mom day (you) helping one out when perhaps she’s not at her best (her).

    • Hi Shannon. Welcome to The Happy Logophile, and thanks so much for your comment!

      I completely agree with you, and that’s exactly why I’m not judging her. I have no way of knowing what was going on in her life or her head at that moment. I don’t for one moment believe that she had bad intentions. However, seeing behaviour in others is a really good way to reflect on our own behaviour. I’m certainly not going to say that I’ve never been guilty of saying the wrong thing for the right reason, or building with the “wrong colour brick”. And I love your viewpoint of one mother helping another. There should be more of it.

  4. Everyone in this world has different priorities, some are merit based, some are education based. I think perceptions of others behavior can go on for days with no apparent resolution, except, I love the way you clarified what your intentions were to wrap up the story. A great way of providing details that many of us might miss, the unfortunate part is many people don’t care enough to change their ways. It’s just the way the world behaves, half animal, half being. Some character traits dominate the rest. Thank you for sharing 🙂

    • Thanks very much for the comment, and for understanding the point I was making with the story. 🙂

      I agree that it’s unfortunate that many people don’t choose to change their ways. The downside to any society is that, as social animals, we feel most comfortable when we’re fitting in with the herd and doing what’s expected of us. The upside to any society is that it only takes a few brave souls to do things differently, do things better, and start encouraging a whole wave of change around them.

  5. This is such an important issue, and very sensitively put. You are right to be concerned about the mother’s reaction and the impact it had, not just on her daughter, but on you, your son, and let’s not forget the mother herself. My wife’s a psychologist, an anti-bullying consultant, and she might possibly see in this scenario a mother who was resigned to being disappointed in life teaching her daughter to accept bullying and victimhood. Not deliberate bullying, but a situation where you might feel bullied.

    No, you can’t absolutely judge the mother from this one action you observed, but you can certainly speculate about why she might have reacted as she did, and conclude that something is not quite right.

    • Thank you. So much. Your comment mirrors my thoughts almost exactly. You really hit the nail on the head, especially in regards to the situation having an impact on everyone involved. Hey, I’m still thinking about it and writing about it weeks later.

      What a lot of people don’t think about is that bullying has a negative impact on everyone involved, not just the victim. But, also, that it’s not hard to teach our children to be victims. One of the best ways to assist in the prevention of bullying is to encourage and teach people (children and adults) to have the confidence and skill to stand up for themselves when they feel bullied. And the first step in that direction is showing (not just telling) our kids that their feelings are valid and important.

      (Clearly you and your wife have a lot more knowledge/experience than I do, but that’s my thought. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.)

      • No, I think you are right about feelings being valid. Bullying is a fact of life and of the human condition, a symptom of the need to establish status and to feel better about oneself, even at the expense of someone else. So it is all the more important important to teach about the processes involved and to establish sppropriate coping strategies to deal with it. Strategies that could involve assertiveness that distances itself from agression, because we know that agression often just leads to an endless cycle of retaliation.

        But there’s no doubt that we all feel adversely affected when we witness behaviour that feels like bullying where nothing is resolved, so I do so sympathise and hope that some positive resolution is eventually achieved.

      • Thanks so much for your comments, calmgrove. They’re really interesting and insightful.

  6. It’s not a big deal, it’s just kid being kids – kid politics. We know that. But we’re grown ups. Our job is to raise adults who know that hurting someone else is not ok. So while knocking down a block tower is not a big deal – hurting someone else is. That’s the message mom should have helped her child see. The one you helped BB see. Good work mom.

  7. I agree with your actions wholeheartedly. It was the right thing to do to recognize the girl. Lord knows how many of us have been minimized due to parents who just want to cause as few waves as possible, thinking the kids will never remember the incident. They do. I just love your sensitive style. You are helping me see that it’s OK to write about this stuff, the small, personal, did-I-really-see-that? kind of daily event that most dismiss, but haunts others. Thanks! I’m a follower now!

    • Thank you, Mimi. I’m really glad to have had such a supportive response to this story. As I said in my intro, I debated a couple of weeks before writing it. On one hand, it was such a tiny little incident, but (to me at least) the ramifications and reflections of this behaviour across society are huge.

      Thank you for reading and for following.

  8. I agree with you 110%! This should have been FP as well!

  9. My take, as a dad: you were definitely in the right. The other parent’s reaction was totally unexpected – I expected anger or for them to try taking discipling your child into their own hands. At least that would’ve made sense, even if I disagree with that approach (although I question whether I would have the fortitude for what I think would be the right approach: to speak to the parent of the the hypothetical child who’d wronged mine and try to calmly and rationally explain how what their child did was not okay). But to show such a complete lack of concern for their own children, to be so dismissive? That’s disgusting.

    FWIW, were I in the other parent’s shoes I’d’ve been so thrilled to see you responding quickly when my child’s block tower had been destroyed, and I’d like to think I’d’ve thanked you for doing the right thing.

    • Thanks, Stephen. I totally agree — if situations had been reversed, I would have been thrilled to see another parent stepping up to do the right thing and would definitely have thanked them for it.

      In situations where my boys have been in that situation and the parents weren’t around, I’m not above speaking to the other children directly. But I’m always incredibly careful about it, and I’d never react with anger or try to discipline the other child. I generally say something like, “Oh, Big Brother was building with those blocks. How about we all sit down and build together. That would be much nicer way to play, don’t you think?” And I’m fine if another parents does a similar thing with my kids. But I can assure you, I don’t react well if they react with anger or try physically touching my child.

  10. I hope this doesn’t sound preachy or patronising as that isn’t my intention. I totally think you did the right thing Jo. I am always questioning whether I am over protective of the Little Chap’s feelings when I see him being upset by the innocent actions of other children, especially when there are no adults stepping in to help that child learn that their physical toddler enthusiasm is misplaced as it has resulted in another unhappy toddler. Good work Mummy.

    I’m so glad you shared this and in your usual clear, calm, rational way too. Every feeling a child has is valid, good or bad. Its our role as parents to help them recognise, understand and react appropriately to them, whether it is sadness, frustration, bewilderment or anxiety or happiness, exhilaration, hilarity or pride. Only that way can we raise empathetic adults who know themselves. Stand tall and stand proud lady.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. And what a beautiful statement you’ve made:

      “Every feeling a child has is valid, good or bad. It’s our role as parents to help them recognise, understand and react appropriately to them, whether it is sadness, frustration, bewilderment or anxiety or happiness, exhilaration, hilarity or pride. Only that way can we raise empathetic adults who know themselves.”

      While it’s important that children learn how to act assertively to protect their own feelings, they’ll only learn the right way to do that if we model it for them.

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