Thumbnail image for bubbles.jpg“F. is a liar,” said Liam as we walked to school the other morning. “He said he had all these cool bakugan pieces and he promised he would bring them to recess but he didn’t. He said he couldn’t find them but really he doesn’t have them. I know it. He’s just a big liar.”

I know F. and, in fact, he may be a bit of a liar; he’s also a bit of a bully. But I also know that F. has a pretty miserable family situation and there’s not a lot of extra money around for stupid faux-anime Japanese toys. I think probably F. made up the story about “all the cool bakugan” just so that he could be in the conversation with Liam and his friends at lunchtime recess.

Recess, as we all know, is a pretty fraught place: factions come together and disperse, alliances are formed and dissolved, on a minute-by-minute basis. F gets left out of the bakugan conversation, but Liam gets left out of the Sponge Bob conversation – Sponge Bob doesn’t play at our house yet (yes, it’s true I am the meanest mom that ever lived) – and because of that, apparently, Liam can’t even open his mouth in conversations with the older boys in his karate class. How can I tell him that most of those SpongeBobbing boys are louts (elementary school versions of the boys I used to date in high school, thus causing my parents to hold their heads and keen in despair)?

And yesterday, also at recess, Liam got fed up with another boy, Z., who has apparently been teasing him for months – gave him such a shove that Z. fell down. 

Liars, peer pressure, shoving … my little boy, it seems, has entered the world of Big Kids and I hate it.

Let me say here that I know my son is no angel:  he’s got a Napoleonic streak that sometimes verges on downright tyrannical – I find it infuriating and I can only imagine how he seems to another eight-year-old. In Liam’s world, there are rules and these rules are meant to be followed. I swear that if we sent Liam and a phalanx of other third-graders to the Middle East, peace would be achieved in no time: You! Go over THERE. That’s NOT FAIR. You’re CHEATING. The rules say TIME OUT. TAKE TURNS.

Z. taunts Liam by saying he’s small (and it’s true: my reference to Napoleon was deliberate: Liam is by far the shortest kid in the third grade), and he says Liam is weak and stupid and bad at soccer. And when the teacher isn’t looking, he likes to poke at Liam, squeeze his arm and say he’s got no muscles… Noodgy, nasty stuff (none of which, by the way, other than the “you’re short” accusation, is true. Yes, that is defensiveness you hear in my voice. Sue me).

Liam hadn’t told me about being teased until the day of the shoving. After dinner the other night, he said he needed to talk to me, so we went in my bedroom and he spilled the beans about shoving Z. and knocking him over. He said he didn’t get in trouble because the other kids told the lunch aide that Z. had been yelling at him – and that if Z. hadn’t been making his life miserable, he wouldn’t have been so angry. When I asked him if he’d told anyone what was happening – or if he’d even said anything to Z – he said no. He didn’t want to get Z. in trouble and he didn’t want to be mean. “I thought I could handle it, mommy,” he said, and then folded his little eight-year-old body into a ball and began to cry.

As he cried on my lap, something weirdly ferocious and primal swept through me: an angry she-bear-protecting-her-cub sort of thing. It’s easy to forget about this primordial instinct, I guess, because mostly it’s covered up by logistics and lessons and errands and playdates and bake sales and all the rest of it. But when I saw Liam crumpled up and crying, I wanted to rip that other kids’ head off, or at very least give him a shove myself. 

Thumbnail image for shebear.jpgListening to Liam’s tale of woe and wrestling with my inner she-bear, I started to wonder where he got the message that he had to “handle” things himself. Have we been unreceptive to his worries and tribulations? Or does he think that he’ll be thought “a baby” if he asks for help? Even this morning, when he had a terrible bloody nose, he only told me about it after the fact, telling me that “he knew how to take care of it.”

Taking care of it, however, did not seem to include disposing of the huge stack of wadded-up kleenex, smeared with dried blood, on the floor by his bed: apparently I’m the clean-up crew. (I didn’t do it. I asked him to do it. He complained. I insisted. He eventually complied. Eventually.)  Clearly, he wants to be his own boss and caretaker, but I’m not entirely sure that either of us is ready.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to be a helicopter parent. In my teaching, I see all too clearly what heli-mommy produces: college kids who can’t register for a class, talk to a professor, write a paper, make any decisions, without having a parent run interference. Many of my students seem detached from their own lives because their parents have been calling all the shots, put a kind of protective bubble around their kids. Remember John Travolta as “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble”? That’s the heli-parent effect: same idea, but without the actual plastic or the disease.

Thumbnail image for plasticbubble.jpgHow do Husband and I find that balance between protecting Liam from a world filled with bad behavior, broken promises, and dashed expectations – and letting him make his own choices, find his own way?
So much of the language of emerging independence connotes suffering – hard knocks, fight your own battles, take your lumps, pick yourself up and dust yourself off – that it’s no wonder they call it “growing pains.” I guess it would be problematic to send Liam to school covered in bubble wrap – but I’d like to find him some psychic bubble wrap, a kind of padded envelope for his sweet soul, so that he emerges relatively unscathed from the treacherous terrain of childhood.

Can I get that at Staples, do you think?