By Francesca Jaffe
There was an “incident” at my son’s camp a few weeks ago. Well, I wouldn’t really call it an “incident” because things like this happen all of the time, but I guess I can refer to it more as a reflective moment for me as a parent. My son, Miles, is six years old and attends a recreational camp in our town. He loves it. He gets to run around with his friends all summer, what’s not to love? I remember dropping him off on the first day of camp and he had that nervous look on his face: he was so afraid he wouldn’t know anyone. By the time I came back to pick him up he was not ready to leave!
Things seemed to be going well. Every day after camp I’d ask him about his day. I ask all of the usual questions: What activities did you do? Did you eat a snack? Who did you play with? Were you nice to everyone? Was everyone nice to you? The answers have typically been the same: “I played outside, I ate my snack, I played with the kids from my class, I was nice to everyone, and everyone was nice to me.” On one particular day, however, the answer to the last question was, “Well, not really.”
“Not really? What do you mean ‘not really’??”
“Well, one kid that I don’t really know was playing with us and called me a mean name.”
“What did he call you? And what did you do after he said it?”
“I don’t remember what word he used, but I just walked away.”
At that moment I felt a little relieved for a few reasons. I was glad that it was something more minor like name-calling that he barely remembers, and I was even more glad that he didn’t inherit his mom’s approach of snapping back at them like a crazy person. With all of that said, though, I knew that his feelings were hurt. I could hear it in his voice. Someone said something to him and it brought him down. This whole exchange caused me to sit in my own thoughts and self-reflect a bit.
I’m not going to preach kindness without reflecting back on myself a bit. I have not always been a kind person. As a kid I remember having such a desire to fit in and sometimes fitting in meant being mean to others. Pretty common story, right?
A few weeks ago I found a meme online about a certain celebrity and a haircut they got. The meme was definitely making fun of them. I sent it in a group chat to a few of my good friends from high school and one of the women in the chat, who epitomizes confidence and kindness, called me out very gently. She reminded me that this particular celebrity had been dealing with a lot of mental health issues and maybe we shouldn’t make fun of her haircut. She was right! There I was, again, seeing something that others found funny and just running with it. In hindsight, I should not have sent out this meme. It wasn’t nice! This scenario didn’t totally cure me of my meme-surfing. I still find memes that I think are hilarious, but at their core are making fun of others. But at least my friend helped to make me more aware. There are still things that I see on the internet that I roll my eyes at or poke fun at. I am still human. I’m still working on filtering out my own sense of humor. I’m not 100% there, and may never be, but I’m a work in progress.
Let’s Reflect Together
Okay, so why am I telling you all of this on a special-needs blog? Let me circle back to Miles at camp. I don’t know what exactly was said to him that made him so upset. The person who said it to him probably thought they were being funny and no one was around to tell him that it was not. What Miles did remember very clearly was that a few of his friends saw that he was upset and came up to him and helped him feel better. The kindness truly stood out in his mind more so than the rude comment the other child made. So, what does this mean for us as parents? Well, I think it helps us to actually have meaningful conversations with our kids about how to approach situations like this. What would a discussion about this look like? Here are a few things you can say to your child:
Has anyone ever been unkind to you? How did that make you feel?
What are some smart ways you can respond to another person who has made you feel badly?
If you see someone being unkind to another person, what could you do as a bystander?
Why do you think that person chose to be mean? Let’s think about what they might be feeling.
If you see a friend who looks lonely or upset, what could you do to help them?
The biggest thing that stands out for me as a mom with a neurotypical son and a daughter with special needs is that my son is able to decipher when to step away from unkind behavior. My daughter, though, is very unaware of what makes a behavior unkind, so she is far more likely to follow along or be unable to handle the situations in an emotionally-healthy way. The discussion topics I listed above are a great way to get those conversations started with her and hopefully it will really click for her as she gets older.
This is such a huge worry for most parents: “what happens when others are unkind to my child?” I think sometimes it’s even more worrisome when you have a child with special needs. Not every kid is taught at home how to be accepting to others that are very obviously different from them. The journey to kindness is not always an easy one. .
So, parents, let’s make a pact. Let’s all mutually agree that we are going to make a concerted effort to teach our kids how to be nice to others and how to stand up to those that are not being nice. If we can agree on this, then together we can all raise confident and kind kids. What’s better than that?
Francesca Jaffe is an educator and mama of two kiddos, one who rocks an extra chromosome. She publishes a blog called Not So Down And Out Mom which can be found at https://www.notsodownandoutmom.com and on Instagram @not_so_down_and_out_mom.