Tag Archives: children

Adults Saying No

I read a story a long time ago. A woman received a call from her child’s school’s PTA, telling her that they needed two dozen cupcakes (or something similar) from her for their upcoming fundraiser.

The mother thought for a moment. “How much do you expect to earn through this event?” she asked.

“Three hundred dollars,” came the reply.

“And how many people do you expect will contribute baked goods?”

“About 15.”

The mother promptly sent the PTA a check for $20 and did no baking.

The PTA members seemed quite upset by this. But here was a mother who had learned to say “no,” while still supporting the PTA’s goal in a tangible way – just without adding a baking chore to her job, or indeed whatever else she had to do.

Saying “no” is important. Lately, we’ve been hearing that permitting children to say “no” to an unwelcome hug or kiss, even from a close relative, is an early lesson in bodily autonomy and setting limits. Similarly, children should be able to say “stop” when being tickled and have their boundaries respected. 

Perhaps because many grown women didn’t have a chance to learn how to say “no” – and have it heard and accepted – they still don’t know how to set those boundaries.

It’s especially hard to do when children are involved.

I read another story about a woman eating a bowl of strawberries. Her child had already eaten his bowl of strawberries, but wanted his mother to give him her last berry. She ate it herself instead.

I remember this caused a furor among those who read the article. Most of the people who wrote in to the magazine where it was published were of the opinion that the mother should have surrendered the last strawberry to her child. Mothers were supposed to sacrifice for their children, they said. The mother who ate the last berry in her bowl was being selfish.

A few replied, however, that the mother was right – and within her rights to eat the strawberry herself. Her child had already eaten his share of the berries. By insisting on being given the last berry, he was, they said, learning greed and that all his wants should be gratified, to say nothing about disrespecting his mother, who, in eating the last berry, was saying “no” to him.

Nothing was resolved, of course, but everyone, it seemed, had an opinion.

Parents have to say “no” to their children sometimes, especially in cases involving danger. They also have to teach their children to say “no” – again especially in cases involving danger. And they would do well to teach their children to accept a “no” from someone else.

But when an adult says “no” to another adult, as in the first example, the response is often incredulity. How dare a mother refuse to participate in a school bake sale! The fact that she contributed in her own, deliberately fair, way seemed an affront.

But saying “no” to requests for time, money, energy, and effort is natural and understandable. It’s very difficult, though, especially for women, and especially without adding some excuse – doctor’s appointment, visiting relative, or whatever. Some feel guilty even when the excuse is valid and true.

Because that’s what’s really happening here. Parents feel guilty when they decide to deny their children – or their children’s schools – anything.

And feeling guilty is a hard habit to break.

Lies We Tell About Bullying

girl wearing black and white striped dress sitting on stair
Photo by Zun Zun on Pexels.com

Being bullied has taught me a lot over the years. Lessons learned in childhood run deep and last long. We learn to not be noticed. That we must try to fit in. That certain people and places and situations are hazardous. That being different is a sin.

But it is not only the things that children do to one another that cause harm. Some of the things that adults say to children about bullying hurt the most. These remarks may be intended to help the bullied child, but at times they do as much damage as the bullying itself.

Chief among the responses to bullying that adults come up with is “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This is a profound lie, as any bullied child knows. Oh, there are sticks and stones, even literal ones. As a third-grader I had rocks thrown at me and countless children have experienced physical bullying – pushing, tripping, hitting, and more.

But words are more than capable of hurting just as much. There are forms of bullying other than physical – emotional, social, racial, sexual. But these forms of bullying are much less visible than the physical kind. If the grown-ups responsible for the care and well-being of the child don’t see bruises or bloody noses, they may think no harm has occurred.

Socially or emotionally bullied children are often told “Don’t be so sensitive.” And it may be true that less sensitive children do not feel the effects of cruel words as drastically. But the underlying message is that there is something wrong with the bullied child – excessive sensitivity. And this is not something that children can change about themselves. It’s like telling a person not to be so tall.

Another piece of advice commonly given to bullied children is, “Just ignore them.” If becoming less sensitive is impossible, even more so is ignoring bullies. Bullies are in-your-face. It’s almost impossible to ignore insults and injuries, derisive chants or laughter. Humiliation is not something that can simply be shrugged off. Bullies rejoice in having an audience for their abuse. It’s beyond hard to ignore a room or playground of kids (or teens), all of whom have witnessed your victimization.

Similarly, bullied children are told, “Other people’s opinions don’t matter.” Again, this is a lie. Of course they do. The opinions of a child’s peers control whether other children feel safe being friends with a bully’s victim. Their opinions determine whether a child will be lonely or despised, or will develop self-esteem. Bullies affect the opinions of other children and make the circle of bullies and bystanders wider. Other people’s opinions make wide ripples.

Bullied children often hear, “Toughen up.” Again, this is an assignment given with no clue as to how it is to be accomplished. It may even be misinterpreted as tacit permission to become a bully too. After all, bullies are tough. And the saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” may come into play. Naturally, this only expands the number of bullies and can victimize other children. A bullied child who becomes a bully may experience not a sense of empowerment but a sense of guilt.

Another common reaction to bullying is to encourage or even to coach a child in fighting back physically. This has little chance of working if the bully is physically larger than the victim and takes a lot of practice if it is to work at all. In addition it teaches children that violence is an appropriate solution to a problem. If the bullying has been emotional or social rather than physical, the bullied child is also likely to get in trouble for striking back in a literal manner.

The problem is that the bullied child is not the problem. He or she does not need to change or be changed. The bully is the one who is demonstrating unacceptable behavior and needs to be stopped. Bystanders are bullying enablers and need to learn how to support and intervene instead.

There are no simple solutions to bullying, which will likely continue as long as children are children, though with awareness of the problem and concerted efforts on the part of adults, it may someday lessen and be less acceptable and less accepted.

But whatever the solution is, it is clearly not to tell the bullied child lies.

A Little Means a Lot

You know those pictures you see of a celebrity presenting an oversized novelty check to some person or organization? Well, I had that experience once – as the giver, not the givee.

At the time I was the editor of a magazine called Early Childhood News, which was for child care center owners and operators. It included articles on legal issues, safety and hygiene, playgrounds, food, self-esteem, volunteers, and more – polls on interesting topics and annual toy awards, to name two.

It was a small magazine (in terms of circulation), so our author payments were not extravagant.

Once I asked a person who was quite well known in the field to write an article, and asked whether I should send his check to his home or university office.

When I told him how much (or rather, little) it was, he said, “Just donate it to a Head Start program.”

So I called the Dayton Head Start program and told them that I had a $200 donation for them, courtesy of the professor.

To say they were flabbergasted would be an understatement. When I came to present the check (a normal-sized one), they figuratively rolled out the red carpet for me. I toured the facility, I met all the administrators and teachers. I had my picture taken presenting the check. (I was glad that I had worn my good green dress that day.)

Until that moment I never realized how such a relatively small sum could have such a big effect. It meant they could buy supplies without caregivers having to dip into their own meager funds. Or provide a special treat or party for the kids. Or purchase books that would enrich children’s minds for years to come.

To me it was modest compensation for what was an ordinary transaction in my business. For the professor, it was an amount too small to bother with. For Head Start it was a windfall.

I think we sometimes fail to realize what even our smallest good deeds – or ordinary actions – can mean to people and groups that struggle. I still had a lot to learn.

That fact was again brought home to me again when I heard someone tell a story about an educational conference she attended. When the topic turned to snow days, she said to the teachers, “I bet you really look forward to those.”

She was met with a profound, awkward silence.

Finally, someone explained it to her: “On snow days, we know that some of our students won’t get a good, nutritious breakfast or a hot lunch. They’ll go hungry.”

It’s a bit embarrassing to think about. To most of us, a snow day means relaxing with hot cocoa, staying in bed an extra hour, or baking cookies with the kids. To teachers and the children they serve, it may mean something a lot less heart-warming.

I’ll admit that I hadn’t thought of that effect of snow days either. Like the woman at the conference, I thought of snow days the way they had been for me in my childhood – a break, virtually a vacation. Because that was all I saw, I thought that was the norm. And for well-off suburban kids like me, it was.

A free or reduced-price school lunch program, or a local food pantry, can mean the difference between hunger and a full tummy to a child. A small donation can help a nonprofit service fulfill its mission to improve children’s lives. In this time of talk about budget cuts for social programs and safety nets that become “hammocks” of dependency (as Paul Ryan believes), let’s spare a thought – or even a small check – for people, especially children, to whom hot, nutritious food; safe and loving care; and enrichment for the mind are luxuries.

It’s something we often think about during the Christmas season, but need is year-round.

When Life Gives You Daughters…

Dad wanted sons, it’s clear in hindsight. What he got was me and Lucy.(1)

Being a good dad, he never said – at least within my hearing – that he really wanted sons. He never said it to my mother within my hearing either.

But there were subtle signs. He gave us boys’ nicknames, for example. Lucy was Buddy and I was Cubby, after the cute little boy Mouseketeer.(2)

Dad would roughhouse with us. He took us to the rifle range and taught us to shoot. He wanted me to grow up to be an engineer. Lucy was determined to be either a jockey or a veterinarian neither of which was a realistic goal, but he left her to her fantasies and decided that I should follow in his footsteps.(3) My mother finally convinced him not to try talking me out of my goal of being a teacher, but by the time she succeeded I had already given it up.(4)

Dad was no feminist though.(5) He just wanted children that he could engage in his guy pursuits with. He wasn’t a sports fan, but he encouraged – no, positively enabled – any interests or hobbies I had that were even quasi-military.(6) I liked archery, fencing, and martial arts. He would buy me all the equipment or accessories I needed. One Christmas he even gave me a Black Widow model slingshot. It had a spiffy wrist brace so that you could get a steady aim and a stronger pull. I don’t think I ever used it, but if I had wanted to I could have put a ball bearing through the side of the garage.

Lucy and I were what they called tomboys back then – me more than Lucy.(7) My mother still got a chance to indulge girlier whims. Every Easter would find us dressed in ruffled pink organdy with frills and itchy headbands adorned with fruit or flowers. Little white patent leather shoes and little white ankle socks were also required, as was the taking of pictures in front of the house.(8)

Despite the occasional attempt at girliness, Lucy and I were not indoctrinated into the prevailing feminine ideals. For example, neither of my parents ever even hinted that I should hide my brains so as not to scare off the boys. In fact, they encouraged me to show off my smarts in some fairly obnoxious ways. I always knew college was my destiny, but I never got the impression that marriage and motherhood were also expected. It came as a surprise to everyone – most of all me – when I did acquire a husband.

Perhaps not surprisingly, that husband turned out to have a combination of male and female traits himself. He bonded with my father by replacing his shocks and with my mother by gardening. He has a background in private-duty nursing and has often had women for bosses.(9) I don’t know that much about his upbringing, but I do know it left him flexible and understanding about the limits of gender roles. I know even less about Lucy’s husband, but I think it’s probably significant that he drives for Meals on Wheels, another sort of caretaking.

In a way I feel sorry for the girls I see who are raised to be princesses in pink. It’s so limiting. We were raised not as girls, not as boys, not as girly boys or boyish girls, but as children (10), who came from male and female, and carried bits of both inside us. And I can’t speak for Lucy, but I think the experience has served me well.

(1) That’s not her real name, but I may occasionally say unflattering things about her and want to cover my bets. And my ass.
(2) Admittedly these were better than the nicknames one guy on a reality show gave his little daughters – Truck and Tank. But ours were still just a wee bit butch.
(3) He was an industrial engineering technician, and since I was destined for college, that made me the obvious choice. I suppose I could have become an engineer, but I would have been a very unhappy one.
(4) There were much more exciting things to be, like a bus driver, a chemist, an FBI agent, or a poet.
(5) When I decided to keep my own name – well, his name, really – after marriage, he quoted that bit to me about the man is head of the woman as Christ is head of the Church (Ephesians 5:23).
(6) He considered “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” to be a fun, catchy children’s song.
(7) I don’t know what they call tomboys now. Just girls, I think. Or maybe children with non-conforming gender identity norms. If you’re a sociologist, I mean.
(8) Some of these pictures may still exist, but you’re not going to see them here.
(9) Not to imply I’m bossy or anything.
(10) It could have been worse. When we were out and about in the neighborhood Dad would whistle to call us back home. I suppose we could have turned out to be dogs.