Imagine you are coaching a Little League team. There’s a lot of things you need to track—the batter at the plate, the play in the field, the kids wriggling in the dugout. You look over to the bench and see Kid #1 spitting sunflower seeds at Kid #2. You explicitly told them not to spit at each other! Kid #2 gets angry and starts to push Kid #1. You separate them and Kid #1 loudly insists he wasn’t spitting seeds. But you saw it! Now he is lying on top of everything else! And the game is still going on, and so you just shout “Out!” to the spitter. He is incensed and shouts he wasn’t spitting at the boy and he is never, ever going to play ball for your team again, and runs out of the dugout crying.
Frustrating, right? A kid directly disobeying what you said, and then lying about it. What a bad kid.
But what if you found out that before that incident, Kid #1 was getting made fun of? He was told that he looked like a girl. Kid #2 wanted proof he was really a boy, because the outside was “debatable.”
That makes it a little more complicated.
And what if the hurt Kid #1, with sunflower seeds in his mouth, was really angry about being made fun of and was trying his hardest to not respond…so instead of yelling back, he spit sunflower seeds. Not AT Kid #2, but *near* him—close enough to make the point, but not actually break the rule. He wasn’t really lying. He never spit the seeds AT the guy. But the result was the same—he got in trouble anyway. AND he’s being called a liar.
He may as well have let full vent to his anger. He may as well have just done all the things he was trying to control. Next time, he probably will. It’s the same difference. He’s the bad kid, the difficult one, the weird boy who is just…a problem.
A problem. Always a problem.
That problem is my son.
I love my little boy. I love his idiosyncrasies and his oddities and his passionate creativity. But I know he’s weird. I know he annoys people. I know he can be difficult.
I know that there is simply not enough time to sit down and sort out a complicated scenario when there is a baseball game going on, and the adults have a hundred moving pieces to watch. I know that my son didn’t really follow the rules—the spirit of the law and all that—and he just needed to stop and say “sorry, Coach” and not argue or yell or cry or any of the things. I know.
But I also know that there was a very upset boy in my arms, so confused about what he did wrong and why everyone is against him and why the other boy didn’t get in trouble, too.
For Little Man, right now, it’s HARD. It’s not that he is refusing to take responsibility for his behavior. But he can’t figure it all out that fast–it takes him three times as long to process an event as someone else. He doesn’t even know what behavior he should be analyzing because to him, it all looks like one big mess. Sometimes, he doesn’t even understand what the consequences were for—which doesn’t help him learn or grow. I have to help him sort out the pieces and then he can pick up the ones he contributed and say, “Yes, this one I did. I shouldn’t have, and I’m sorry.”
I know he’s weird. Sometimes it seems like he doesn’t get it. Sometimes it looks angry and defiant.
But here’s the thing. He does see it. He gets it. And it breaks him. Every time.
“Mama,” he whispers to me at night, “Mama, why can’t I just make my mouth behave? Why do I always say the stupid thing? Why do I do the wrong thing and say the wrong thing, even when I know it’s wrong? Why can’t I just be….normal?”
I laugh at that. You are in the wrong family for normal, my boy. I’m almost four decades in and I haven’t figured out how to be normal.
In those moments, I’m not his parent. I’m his compatriot in this journey of being weird in a world where following the correct social path is paramount. I get it. I remember the lonely nights crying myself to sleep because for the life of me I could not figure out what I was doing wrong, and why the other kids hated me so much.
The first time someone told me I should kill myself because the world would be better off, I was in 5th grade. That was also the year I was told that my mom didn’t really love me—she just tolerated me because it was required. No one really wanted me; I would never have a boyfriend or get married because no one could love someone like me. They told me that everyone who said they liked me was faking it or doing it out of pity. I should just die, and no one would care.
I was 11.
My boy is 11.
This year, his grades fell from A’s and B’s to D’s and F’s. He was constantly in the office at school. Going to church became a nightmare—I couldn’t leave a service without parents confronting me. He swore. He was mean to kids. He told long, elaborate stories that he insisted were true, and would argue with others when they called him out for lying. He said other inappropriate things.
But I also know that every day, he is prepared for someone to tease him. He is filled with anxiety. He knows adults label him as “difficult.” He knows that the other kids loudly and openly complain when he is around. He knows they try to bait him on purpose. He knows that he brought some of it on himself by his behavior. But he doesn’t know how to fix it.
So he goes out in the world already in fight or flight mode. He enters each social situation, knowing that he is the weird kid, ready to protect himself. And when the kids point out his weirdness, he is defensive. And that makes the other kids snippy and impatient, which makes him frustrated. Then one or two of the bullies push that frustrated kid just a little bit more, so he turns mean. Sometimes, he is mean to the littler ones, because they laughed too, and he couldn’t get at the ones who had really hurt him. And the rest of the kids back away and stay away and their parents call and tell us to keep away.
This is how you turn a weird kid into a “bad kid.” Piece by piece, day by day. Higher and higher the walls go on both sides.
As adults, we don’t want this to happen. We tell our children to “be nice” and “be kind.” Of course, we don’t want our children to be hurt or hear mean words. And yes, my child was the one who hit or spit or swore. But rarely in our society do we work to address the root of why. We don’t change the cycle. We remove the angry kid, but don’t address the circumstances and the quiet isolation and the more “socially acceptable” bullying that contributed to bring him to that place.
And here’s where it’s led: we’ve been asked to not return to social groups. We left the public school. We’ve been told we are not welcome into church without tight supervision while we watch his bullies roam free. We’ve been told that we can’t discuss these bullies because we are “here about your son’s behavior.” This feels more like prison than love.
I survived my childhood by retreating. I became a bookworm and isolated myself into a fortress of my own making. It was lonely. I fought it within my own soul. I still do.
My son is trying to survive by attacking. Others are isolating him and locking him away and he fights back. Bad attention is still attention. But he’s just as anxious and lonely and bullied as I was. He just fights it louder and more outwardly than I ever did.
And here is what is true about our world: It’s easy to overlook the quiet girl in the corner reading a book—to encourage your kids to befriend her. It’s not so easy to overlook the loud hurt of a weird “bad” kid—you find yourself encouraging your kids to stay away.
I know. I’ve been that parent, too.
But let me tell you the things that you might not know.
You don’t know how brave this boy is. You don’t know how many times he has been told that other kids wished he would just die. You don’t know all the fear that rages under the swagger. You don’t know how he worries about how he will mess up.
You don’t know how, all the times you called him a “girl” and told him to “cut your hair” (yes…you adults too), that you were attacking his brave and his good.
“My hair is my strength,” he said. “I wear my weird on the outside.”
You don’t know how much compassion that has created in him—“What’s so bad about being called a girl?” he said. “Girls are cool and strong and nice. Why is it bad to be that?”
You don’t know that has the biggest, softest heart. You don’t know that he’s been growing out his hair with a secret plan to donate it. Why would he tell the rest of you, when all you do is say how bad it looks, or tease him about it?
You don’t know the deep trauma he carries with him every day. He has had to deal with things that could destroy an adult. He has professional help, and he works hard. Really hard. But the burden can be heavy some days.
You don’t know the loss he has to process, and the demons he has to fight—demons that live in adults who were supposed to protect and care for him. Demons that rear their heads and slash swaths of pain across the hearts of those he cares about.
You don’t know the way he loves anyway, because he knows—very personally—how sometimes pain comes out in the form of anger or spite. You don’t know the grace he has for them. For your kids, too.
And you don’t know the way he feels—daily—that he is failing us all.
I understand that feeling. Some days, I still worry that the people who love me are faking it. Some days, I still feel out of step with the rest of the world. Some days, I wonder if all my accomplishments are a result of pity. Some days, I think that I really did deserve all of the bad things that have happened to me—they called it back in 5th grade.
But I know those things aren’t reality. I know that the whispers of old lies are no match for the light of truth. I know that the life I have created is beautiful. I know, too, that I am still weird, and awkward, and pointy in parts, and all hexagonal. I don’t look like everyone else, and I don’t act like everyone else, either. But now, that difference feels pretty good on me.
Perhaps those things that were so “wrong” with me all those years ago are my best qualities.
And perhaps that will be true for my son, too.
So maybe you could just love him where he is, and tell him how brilliant his weirdness is? Maybe instead of worrying so much about protecting other children FROM him, you could worry more about teaching the others to embrace him in all his pointy-ness? Maybe having a little more grace instead of restrictions, he would see that he doesn’t need to perform for attention?
I know my kid is sometimes mean to yours and says bad things. But he’s not doing it in a vacuum, and there’s always more to the story than you think. Maybe we could take the time to listen to all of it.
I know you worry for your kids. I worry for mine, too. But maybe we could build a village instead of isolating walls. Maybe your kids are stronger than you think.
I know there aren’t easy answers. But I know that love overcomes the deepest depths of darkness. Maybe you could join us as we figure it all out.
I know my kid is weird. But he’s not the enemy. Maybe he’s exactly what your world needed.