For all that popular culture and literature like to extol the protective instincts of the “Mama Bear,” the mother who will move Heaven and Hell for her child, I think my greatest parenting joy comes from the moments when I can let my maternal bear hibernate in her cave and watch my children fight their own battles – whether their foes come from without or from within.
No one ever told me how vividly the memories of my own school days would stick to my brain, and to my soul. As a kid, I assumed that adults had their brains wiped somewhere in their 20s. That was the only logical explanation for the obtuse refusal of the grownups to fix or to even understand the social catastrophes of my life. Nothing else could explain why my parents seemed so insouciant about the fact that everyone hated me, that so-and-so had stolen my best friend, and that it was obvious that the whole class was laughing at me. And nothing but a mind-wipe could possibly render parents clueless enough to suggest that their socially awkward daughter stand up for a classmate who was truly being bullied.
I was committed to evading the amnesia of adulthood. I would remember my childhood so that I could make sure that my kids never had to deal with pain, discomfort, humiliation, or unpopularity. I would have the magic words to fix everything for them, to make schoolwork easy and classmates congenial.
Ok, so I’m not sure where I was planning to get the magic wand, but plans forged in adolescence aren’t always heavy on concrete details. Still, it was with a jolt of betrayal toward the 13-year-old within, that I heard the adult line come out of my own mouth when my kids began to come home with the same litany of complaints and angst.
Did I immediately telephone the teacher that my daughter accused of “favoring the popular kids?” No. Ignoring the ‘how-could-you’s’ of my interior teenager, I found myself commenting that teachers tended to focus on the students who put forth the best work as examples and on the students who need the most help, and that if she wanted the teacher’s attention, perhaps she could do more to make her work shine. “Way to be supportive, Mom.”
When my kids complained that some children were teasing another child, did I call the school demanding intervention? No. I said to my own children, “Well, where were you? Did you tell them that they were being mean?” My comment quoting the maxim “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is that good men stand by and do nothing,” was met with eyerolls.
Those are the days when I question my non-interference policy, and I wonder if my children’s lives wouldn’t really be a bit easier if I were the sort of mom who regulated their social and academic interactions, who leapt to their defense rather than saying, “Well, maybe we should talk about ways you could handle that next time.”
I actually broke down and polled Caitlin and Aidan one day during a period of grammar school unrest (historians and sociologists should spend more time in elementary schools if they want to understand social upheaval). “Would you prefer for me to talk to your teachers or to other parents when you’re having problems with other kids or in class, or do you want me and Dad to stay the heck out of it?”
“Stay the heck out of it!” The response was horrified and unanimous.
Ok, good enough for me. And yet, the Mama Bear sometimes growls in the back of her cave, lumbering toward the entrance.
Two things happened this week, small things, but enough to shove her back into hibernation for a while:
Sierra came home from school commenting that a couple of the boys from her class were teasing a friend of hers in aftercare. “They told him he wasn’t saying his words right,” she said indignantly. I steeled myself for the ‘teachable moment’ conversation, wondering if I was going to have to break my rule and intervene in the class social dynamic. Before I could breathe, Sierra went on, “I told him that he should just ignore them and not play with them or talk around them if they were going to be mean.”
Oh. “And did you say anything to them,” I asked. Bigger and tougher kids than my 40 lb sprite have bowed to peer pressure before now.
“I told them that people say their words their own way and that they shouldn’t pick on people about how they talk.”
Ok, then. Loyalties and friendships of six-year-olds shift like clouds blown across the sky, so I’m not really worried that any of the parties involved will be scarred for life, or that some irretrievable social order is being set in 1st grade. But, Sierra wasn’t just telling me a story; she was telling me loud-and-clear that she could fight her own battles.
The second episode is a little more convoluted, and a little more subtle. As referenced earlier, Caitlin struggles with the concepts of work and achievement. Bright, creative, and reasonably talented in art, music, and academics, she’s used to things coming easily. She’s never really had to struggle to achieve an acceptable level of competence, and being forced to put effort, discipline, or practice into a project annoys her. Actually, it infuriates her.
As she teachers (and parents) have begun to expect higher levels of effort in schoolwork, music, etc., Caitlin’s mature front has started to crack and we’ve seen some signs of adolescent victimhood. Just as I was beginning to wonder if she really would find her own way out of this, and was considering breaking my only 2-week-old pact to not bug her about her work as long as she promised to put full effort into it, she made a comment that changed everything. “Where is the poem book? I’ve decided to memorize ‘If’.” I’ll leave it to you to determine the connection. Enjoy…