A Parable for Our Times; or, My Response to My Toddler Being Bullied

My child is three. Full disclosure: in approximately one month, she will be four. But given that not so long ago we were counting her life in weeks, still, until her August birthday, she is three. I don’t know if this is relevant, but here it is.

All that established, I share this: as my three-year-old wonder of a child was standing in line at the diving board of the local pool and a group of junior high-aged kids started making fun of her, I all but lost my fucking mind.

She, oblivious to the fact that she was the one who was not like the others – in a fashion that has led me to cow about & celebrate her far and wide – was bookended by two or three maybe twelve- or thirteen-year-olds on either side. As she got to the end of the diving board, one of the boys rolled his eyes and noted “She’s probably just going to fall off.” And then laughed uproariously, as did a number of his companions. When she jumped, as she always JUMPS, he made a kind of “boom” sound, as though she was certain to have merely fallen in.

diving board

More full disclosure: I have rage inside of me. Maybe by nature, maybe by nurture. But it is a thing I have worked, I HAVE WORKED SO HARD to control in my adult life, and especially since I have become a mother – and thus, in my mind, a model, to my child. To the garbage teeny-bopper playing big to his buds by making fun of my girl, I shouted over, “Actually, she knows exactly how to jump. But how thoughtful of you to express such concern.” Since then, I have thought (as we do) of one million things better to have said – but all of them include profanity, so maybe they are not technically “better.” In my struggle not to swear before a pool of children, my response was limited. But it was a response. From the boy, obliviousness, I think, but a friend noted this and filed it.

Fortunately, my child had been at the end of the board, immersed in her forthcoming jump. I had heard the jokes at her expense – only me – and so she kept getting in line, jumping, swimming to me so I might lift her from the deep end, and returning for another round.  I seethed, but she just swam.

Again, minutes later, as she was preparing to jump, the junior high kids were behind her. As my girl – my three-year-old girl – bounced at the edge of the diving board, up and down, up and down, preparing to propel herself forward, a girl in the group started laughing, and hands on hips, asked incredulously “WHAT is she doing?!” The friend who’d caught my response last time around shushed her. Stop, he said, waving a hand in front of his throat and saying her name, a name I know, and so won’t reprint here.

What was my girl doing? Being three. And awesome. And joyous. And unconcerned with what others might think. The opposite of what those children – and yes, still children, I know – were doing.

I was and am heartbroken in the aftermath of this. I know the junior high age is notorious. And I know an easy way to feel big in front of friends is to belittle those who are a) unable to respond and b) on their own. These kids were unaware of my presence, excepting the one, who may or may not have spoken out only because of my presence and my response to the earlier slight. And so my girl was an easy target. I think, what if she’d been just a little older? What if she’d heard them and been made to feel self-conscious? What if other, bigger kids caused her to step back, to exchange fearlessness for fearfulness of being judged? And what if she’d then stopped doing a thing she loved because of the kind of hatefulness that motivates this kind of behavior?

All of this is shitty. So, so shitty. But even more:  a gang of junior high kids against a toddler seems such a harsh representation of the reality – and potential ongoing consequences – of this time and place.

On this day also, the President of the United States used his social media account to depict himself violently attacking a Fake News Network intended to represent CNN. In the past week, he’s gone after journalists who’ve dared to critique him. In the past weeks, he’s returned to attack the woman who triumphed over him by more than three million votes and yet graciously ceded the election. And we’ve seen him attack the foreign-born, the disabled, those who fail to fit his idea of the ideal physical specimen, and more. So many more.

I’m not drawing a line from the President of the United States to the rotten bullies who thought it great fun to mock my child. But there is something to be said for the model he – and others in public life – provide. When his outrageous behaviors are allowed to stand, merely a finger wag of a furrowed brow from his partisan colleagues, cowards who refuse to condemn his incivility for precisely what it is – they send a message that this kind of behavior is not only normal but appropriate and acceptable. And children, children who will have undergone formative years during this administration, will have learned that their adolescent misbehaviors qualify as suitable adult conduct.