My cell phone rang at work, and my stomach dropped when I saw it was my daughter’s school calling.
The dreaded call from school is never good news – it usually means either sick kid or hurt kid. I answered. It was my daughter’s kindergarten teacher. “Is now a good time?” she asked. For a moment, I breathed easier thinking she was just calling to discuss the logistics of bringing in my daughter’s birthday snack the following day.
“Sure,” I said. But she wasn’t calling about birthday party logistics.
My daughter wasn’t sick or hurt either. Instead, I learned she’d been the cause of two disturbing incidences in one week. The first included a throwing a fit and hurting a classmate’s feelings; the second drew blood and sent her to the principal’s office.
As a mom, especially a mom to a daughter, my mind went into protective mode.
Was she just defending herself? Did the other kid start it? Surely, this couldn’t be coming unprovoked from my own sweet child. But after hearing more about what had happened, I learned that she’d responded to a classmate with such a lack of empathy that her teacher had to say to her, “Look at his face, look how sad you just made him.”
I was so naive to think my kid would never be the mean kid.
As I talked more to her teacher about the incidents, I felt myself drifting into new uncharted parenting territory. Minutes beforehand, I’d been lamenting how quickly time passed and couldn’t believe I would have a 6-year-old the very next day.
She’d be a full-blown kid, and I wasn’t prepared for what that meant at this moment.
So, what to do?
First, I asked her teacher how to make it right with her classmates. We discussed strategies like writing an apology note complete with a picture of the other classmate’s favorite animal (they were only 6, after all). Then, I called my husband. While my first feeling upon hearing what happened was shame, his was anger. Both of us knew this wasn’t a quick fix – it wasn’t something to be solved by less screen time or a time out. This was going to include some tough conversations and daily reminders.
Maybe, beneath the shame and anger, we were also both a little scared because this challenge signaled the start of something else. The early days of keeping our kids fed, clothed, and loved weren’t enough anymore. Our responsibility as parents had shifted to helping them become good people.
And maybe, we were failing.
The early days of keeping our kids fed, clothed, and loved weren’t enough anymore. Our responsibility as parents had shifted to helping them become good people, and maybe we were failing.
Mantras from parenting articles swirled through my head. I wondered which one was appropriate here.
Treat others the way you want to be treated
Lead with kindness
To have a friend, be a friend
Talk to the person who is shy
Sit by the person who’s sitting by themselves
Open the circle
Your words have weight
My husband and I decided to focus on what it means to be a good friend. This focus opened our daughter up to talking about the details of the incidents, and we realized the root of her behavior was actually uncertainty and anxiety about her friendships at school.
In other words, we were happy to know we weren’t raising a bully.
I suppose this is what we signed up for when we decided to become parents.
It’s not always going to be easy, and life can’t be lived without learning from mistakes. In hindsight, we realized how lucky we were that this first lesson was at 6, not at 16. Maybe by getting our first test now, with lower stakes, we can lay a foundation for dealing with more difficult issues when the stakes are higher. “Helping children understand their social world and develop ways to meet their emotional and social needs is a critical part of early education,” says the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
It was also important to check our privilege. “Mean” is something we can change with practice, unlike discovering a developmental disability or uncovering bias against our child (or within our child) based on skin color. Maybe, we were fortunate to be starting with mean.
We checked in with her teacher often and made it through the rest of the year without another call from the school. In the end, it was her teacher that offered us some real-talk wisdom during one of those check-in conversations.
“She is still a work-in-progress, but we all are.”
Here are a few ways we also brought the lesson home.
Practice with siblings
I grew up with three brothers, so I remember a rough and tumble childhood. I thought sibling rivalry and physical conflict was just part of growing up. But after the incidents at school, I became more attuned to how my oldest was handling conflict at home. For example, I realized she tended to escalate things quickly and would physically lash out at her younger sister instead of talking to her first. We stepped in more often and encouraged her to talk to her sister before things got physical, and if needed, separate them to give her space to cool down.
Especially right after the incidents, my husband and I tried to talk about feelings – a lot – to help encourage empathy. We’d share how we were feeling, acknowledge her feelings, discuss hypotheticals and scenarios we’d read together in books or watched in her favorite shows to relate to her experiences.
Make space for open communication
After we read bedtime stories, my daughter and I always have a few minutes of snuggle time while she’s tucked in bed. It’s one of my favorite parts of the day and when richer conversation usually happens. In these moments, she’s confessed her fears about first grade, asked “how babies actually get inside moms’ bellies”, and shared other thoughts and questions she never shares when we ask about her day around the kitchen table. Like me, I think she needs time to process and the snuggle feels like a safe space to talk. I hope as she grows (and maybe outgrows snuggle time) we find another safe space to keep our communication open.