Bullies and Tender Hearts

by Kersley Fitzgerald

Okay, this is probably one of those "World's Worst Parent" posts, but there you go.

What do you do when your child comes to you with downcast heart and sorrow beyond measure and tells you he's being bullied?

What do you do when you're pretty sure he's just a somewhat tired, over-sensitive, pre-pubescent twelve-year-old who needs some thicker skin?

Turns out you do the same thing in both cases.

JT is wide-open when it comes to relationships. He's a lot like his dad, Dev—he expects great, deep connection with everyone he meets, even as he runs circles around them because he's got more energy than any one being should legally have access to. Because of this, he's often more comfortable around littler kids and adults who don't have their guard up around a charming ball of energy.

He's also Thai. As far as I know, he hasn't been harassed because of his appearance. But Thai people come in a wild variety of sizes, and JT is on the smaller end. He was in the 25th percentile on the Thai growth charts, which means he was nowhere near the American chart. His size combined with his energy and his joie d'exhausting vive cause people to treat him as younger than he is. Even kids who are his age and younger.

We knew this would happen, which is one reason we did not want him to go to a public school beyond grade school. Last year, he was in a small school with only four kids in his class. This year he's got about sixty, not to mention the rest of the K-12th graders in the building.

But we didn't expect the first encounter to come from church. Especially from the boy he's been friends with for six years. Granted, the boy is nine inches taller than JT, but JT is one day older. In the logic of young boys everywhere, JT was told by this friend and another boy who was three years younger that he was too young to play with them.

Yeah—one of those things that cause adults to get "confused eyebrows" while the kid thinks it's the end of the world.

Parents were called/texted. Reluctantly. Because, really, shouldn't this be one of those things the boys work out? Perhaps after being told, "How can he be too young to play with you if he's older than you?!" Apologies were given, in varying degrees of sincerity (his old friend hugged him). All is well again.

Not a month later, he approached Dev and me individually. "I'm being bullied at school," he said. "Some boys keep saying, 'You're so small. Why are you so small?' I tell them I'm Thai but they just keep doing it."

The confused eyebrows returned. How is this "bullying"? I thought back to Dev's story of how he and his friends took a younger punk, stuffed him in a trash can, and threw rocks at the trash can. Or the sexual harassment that goes on in middle and high schools all over the country. I had a hard time figuring out how the comment "Why are you so small?" caused such emotional angst.

Especially because, by all other accounts, he is loving his new school. The other kids love him, the teachers love him, and he had the principal wrapped around his little finger the second day when he told her the sessions on classroom policies were "really interesting."

But emotional angst overfloweth. So Dev and I stepped up.

The principal was emailed. Reluctantly. She spoke to the boys. She spoke to the boys' parents. She called JT in for a little conference. JT laid his soul bare. The principal told him the game plan. He felt relieved and validated.

Lest you think I'm a total ogre, I should let you know that when I see another child (or adult) intimidate or endanger my child, I go full-on mama bear. But I've also seen the child break down in tears because he forgot to carry the 1 in a division problem. It's really hard to tell when his complaint is legitimate and when he just needs a candy bar. Which is probably why all our texts/emails/calls start out with, "I don't know if this is a big deal, but I just wanted to let you know …"

But I'm learning that it doesn't matter. In this, with our child, I need to err on the side of overreacting. That's my job. Because he comes out of it with peace and reassurance. Not the cynical, suspicious nature I excel at. There will come a time when he needs to develop thick skin and perspective, and understand that a comment one moment will be forgotten the next. But 12-years-old in a new school isn't his time. And for him, thick skin doesn't win people over—his joie d'exhausting vive does. As long as it isn't crushed by bullying, real or imagined.

Kersley Fitzgerald is a former Air Force officer, former Air Force wife, and current editor of Got Questions’ blog site, Blogos.org. She and her husband adopted JT from Thailand when he was 18 months old. He has spent the ensuing years teaching her more about God than any theology course could.

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