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