Bella is 7 years old. A natural artist who loves to sing, she is kind to her very core and seeks out the kid on the playground with no friends to make sure no one is left out. She has had eczema since she was born. It occasionally flares up, requiring steroids, creams, and more Benadryl than any small child should ever consume. On Monday it flared up (probably due to stress at her new summer camp) and she was sent home early with (direct quote) “A doctor’s note required before she can return to make sure the other kids can’t catch it.” She went to the doctor Tuesday, who gave her a note, identified it as an eczema flare up, and prescribed more creams and steroids. On Wednesday she went back to camp with the note and two little under age 10 jerks- the only two boys in the entire summer camp- decided to tell all the other kids that Bella eats her skin and drinks her blood, which is why she has red patches. By the time my friend picked Bella up at summer camp that afternoon, she was upset and wanted to “stop being different.” Please tell me that this pulls at your heart strings the way it does mine. If there is one lesson I want to leave my children with it is that being different is the one thing that should WANT to be.
Not wanting to turn into the irrational mommy monster, I approached the situation with my typical candor, explaining to Bella and Mia that these children were not raised right and clearly represented all of the ills of modern society. Oh wait- you think I’m kidding. Nah, that, too, was a direct quote. More specifically, I told her to phone me directly from summer camp should the instructor ignore the behavior of these two, so I could come on down there to educate these little monsters on how to treat others with respect. This morning I made a point to phone the owner of the summer camp. An older woman (please note out of the kindness of my heart I am not naming names, but I really want to), I explained the circumstances and, incorrectly, assumed that a WOMAN of any age or background would appreciate how bullying from two boys affects a little girls self esteem. Wrong. Flat out wrong.
More concerned with Bella needing to “cover herself” and wear long pants and long sleeves, she did mention that she would address the bullying with the instructor, but she was really primarily “concerned about Bella’s health issues.” Listen- this is not a kid with the flu. You can’t catch eczema. She doesn’t have fleas. She isn’t a freak. She is a smart little girl with a perfectly treatable skin irritation. The attitude of the owner was a grandmotherly assessment that “boys will be boys.” To that, I offer my answer: oh yes, they sure as hell will, but it won’t be within a mile of my girls. I won’t be able to protect them from all the bullies that come into their life, but when an adult leader doesn’t “get it”, I can remove my children from the situation to protect them. It is my obligation as a good parent to protect my children.
Why is traditional thinking about bullying and bad behavior toxic? One answer: it doesn’t work. My mom was famous for telling me that “sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” I call bullshit. Words destroy your sense of self confidence, they tear down your identity, and negative attacks from your peers at the tender age of 7 years old don’t “toughen up” a kid- they create an unstable, rocky foundation that can lead to all kinds of issues throughout their entire lives.
Now, what can you do to teach your kids about positive behavior and how to handle people who are different? First, you can seek out teaching opportunities where your children can interact with people who are different. They don’t have to have a medical condition, but they can be from a different walk of life or culture. Your kids will be more well rounded and have a better awareness of the world they live in than if you raise them in a perfect suburban cave. At the water park earlier this month we were in line and a little girl behind us asked Bella about her eczema out of curiosity. The little girl’s mom hushed her and discouraged her from asking, but I encouraged her to ask and Bella explained that she was born with eczema, what it was, and how she had to take some medicine and put cream on daily. It turned into a friendly, educational opportunity and the girls continued playing that afternoon.
Finally, for all of you parents with kids who are different, I am sending you a digital hug. And for all of you kids who are different, I beg you to own it. Celebrate whatever it is that makes you stand out from the crowd. Seek out adults and leaders who “get it.” Everyone is someone’s child. Every child deserves to be treated with respect and kindness.