“So, how was the trip?” I asked my 11 year old son, Levi, after his recent overnight team-building field trip to Prescott.
“It was fun,” he said with about as much enthusiasm as Ben Stein discussing the Dow’s recent decline.
This kind of deadpan delivery is so drastically out of character for my eldest child that to me, it was equivalent to him confessing he’d been beaten bloody by a band of rogue gang members on his way to the dining hall. It was the first time he’d ever opted out of a conversation with me, and it felt shockingly ominous.
Pressing the issue didn’t help. So I had no choice but to leave him alone and hope that over time I would hear what was distressing him. A few hours later, in the midst of a heated game of Marco Polo in the pool, Levi told me that some boys on the trip had been using inappropriate language and that he’d asked them to stop. When they refused, he warned them that he was going to tell an adult. When they still didn’t stop, he told a teacher who handled the situation.
My husband and I both were dismayed. Levi’s always been a rule follower to the extreme. We tried to explain to him that no one likes a tattle-tale and that telling on your friends isn’t really the right thing to do. He seemed disappointed and dejected, as if we didn’t understand that he was only doing the right thing.
I talked to friends and family over the next few days about the incident and everyone unanimously concurred that being a narc was not a way to win friends and influence peers. I was relayed countless tales of other people’s “brave” children who had remained silent in the face of racism, anti-semitism and all sorts of social bigotry . But somehow that felt wrong to me as well. I went back to Levi a few days later to try and explain that it is good to stand up for what’s right. It’s just that you have to know when to do so and when to let a few broken rules slip by unnoticed. I told him that it was a tough distinction to know when to stand up and when to keep silent. But, a general rule was that if someone was being hurt by something (physically, verbally, emotionally), that was the time to get an adult involved.
“But, mom,” he told me, “Someone was being hurt. Those boys were saying those bad words to someone.” Wow. I was surprised. I confess that I immediately assumed they were being said to my son and still felt like maybe silence would have been a better path to take. But Levi went on, “They were all calling this new boy bad names and he didn’t seem able to defend himself.” Then came my, “Oh Lord, I’m an idiot” moment.
Here I’d spent the greater part of a week trying to teach my son that he was a tattle-tale, when in fact, he showed stunning courage, and a willingness to protect another child at risk to his own standing and possibly his personal safety.
“So, they weren’t making fun of you?” I stammered. “No,” he answered. “But the kid they were teasing couldn’t handle it. So I asked them to stop. Then I gave them a warning. Then I told an adult.” It was a text book bullying moment and my child had stood up to the test. “Did they make fun of you after you told on them?” I inquired. “Yeah,” he said. “But I just tuned them out. They’re really immature.”
To say that I am proud of my boy would be an understatement of monumental proportion. But my point here is bigger than one child’s noble reaction to cruelty, or a mother’s gratefulness for her boy’s compassion. The point is that we’re all so conditioned to ignore bad behavior, to look the other way when evil or unkindness rears itself before us. Because we don’t want the repercussions. We don’t want to make waves. We don’t want to be the next victim.
In spite of a myriad of anti-bullying programs at every school in this country, kids are still cruel at times and it isn’t until each and every one of us is willing to stand up and say, “enough,” that the harm and hurt will cease to exist. It’s about doing the right thing; when it’s really difficult to do it. Because that’s when it counts most of all.