Intentionally or not, even the loveliest of people say and do mean things.
The offending statements or snide comments come via hurtful words, body language, or questionable actions. Children learn this early as they are socialized at school, or go outside to play with other kids. Or, maybe they learn it at home when one child is the favorite of otherwise good but oblivious parents.
Depending upon a child’s internal fortitude and the degree of damage done, mean things will keep school counselors and adult therapists in business until the end of time. But, as kids grow they learn how to control themselves and most will try not to be mean. Those with an evolving conscience and sense of reasoning realize it isn’t nice and if caught, they will get in trouble. Or at least be scolded, if the adult in charge is well adjusted and on board with the whole don’t-be-mean thing.
Granted, everyone is different and many factors go into how children will cope and act when on the receiving end of a mean-spirited incident. Are they stand-up-for-yourself and fight-back kids? Are they turn-the-other-cheek and maybe tell-the-teacher-instead kids? Or, are they the act-indifferent-but-fester-inside kind of kids? It’s all based on their life experience: What they’ve seen, heard, mimicked, and emulated.
I thought about this after I had an altercation with a 9-year-old boy last week. Altercation may be a strong word, but verbal battering is too soft. It was one of those times I had to remind myself I am an adult with more life experience than that little scamp.
While in the waiting room of a medical clinic to get x-rays on my bum knee, I was frantically texting to problem-solve a work snafu. In haste, I had sent someone incorrect dollar figures and was trying to fix it in a way that I wouldn’t look like a dumbass. This required concentration so I didn’t hear my name called from the other end of the room.
By the time I tuned in and went up to the desk, the technician had taken another patient so I walked back to my seat. The little boy had since arrived with his mother (who was also on her phone) and I could tell he was bored from the get-go. That was when he told me he was 9 and asked why I was there and what was wrong with me. Sort of.
“I saw you walking back and it looks like your leg hurts,” the kid said, with knowing smugness in his tone. “Did you break something? Maybe it is because you are too overfat and it hurts for your leg to hold you up. Being overfat means you should go on a diet.”
At that very moment, something from second-grade recess popped into my mind. There he was, my long-ago classmate, Mike Lofton. I could distinctly hear him singing: “Fatty-fatty, two-by-four, can’t get through the bathroom door” until a bystander, Ruby Smith, ran and told the teacher. Lofton’s crooning was a memory that had been suppressed for decades.
The boy’s mother, who heard the end of our exchange, looked at him hard.
“Come sit down right now,” she said. “Calling someone overweight is mean and you know it. We have talked about this, it is just plain mean. There is no cause to bring up anyone’s size. You need to apologize right now.”
Saved by the technician calling my name, I became an act-indifferent-and-fester-later adult. That kid knew he was being mean, but I’m a grownup and my reaction says more about me than anything a 9-year-old could do or say – at least at that moment (and in second grade) because now I am sharing it with the world.
Not being mean is somehow tied into empathy which is slipping away faster than a child’s innocence.
I know this because I heard the NPR “Up First” podcast of May 21 titled “Comprehending Loss,” about the million people-plus who have died from COVID-19 in the U.S., and how we incorporate that reality into our own day-to-day living. First, it was 100,000, then 500,000, and so on. Each benchmark was more trying and unreal than the next.
The point is that eventually, we have to be less empathetic to survive because numbers like 1 million-plus cause more grieving than we can take, both individually and collectively. And how do we reconcile our individual personal losses and those of the rest of the world? How much interest can the public hold?
There’s still a lot we don’t know about how to be, but I’m slowly forgiving that kid (but not Mike Lofton, never him) for his meanness, especially since his mom was on board with the lesson.
Even the loveliest of people do mean things. We just need to keep our interest peaked, our empathy strong, and look for innocence.
Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at email@example.com.