Last night at bedtime I climbed into my daughter's bed for our evening "chat." I love this ritual. We lay on our sides facing each other under the pink and green flowered quilt that my mom gave Ruby when we bought her a "big girl bed." Hanging above us is a gently swaying bejeweled purple butterfly and on the wall is a painting of four colorful fairies dancing in a meadow that was painted by my mom.
Bedtime is the sweet part of the day when Ruby and I finally get to be alone, and the moment when I get the real scoop on what's happening in her life at school. When Ruby is sleepy and her brothers aren't competing for my attention, she drops her guard and offers me brief glimpses into her rich imaginary world, her friendships, and her feelings about our family.
Last night, as Ruby told me about what she did at recess that day, my heart hurt a little. She described hanging out with her best buddy at school and went on to tell me about a joke they played on another girl. I asked her why they did this and she said, "Well, that girl follows us around and is really annoying. We, like, need our space."
This, coming from a girl who struggles in fit in, who often feels like a dork and wants so desperately to be friends with the girl she deems most popular. I asked her how it would make her feel if two girls played a joke on her, if they excluded her and told secrets behind her back. "I wouldn't like that at all," she said. "People are jerks to me all the time. They think I'm a baby and like to carry me around because I'm so short. I hate being so short! And I hate my hair. I wish I had blonde hair! And I need pierced ears! I am a geek. No one ever wants to be my friend."
Before I knew it, Ruby's big brown eyes were filled with tears. She angrily wiped at her wet cheeks and buried her face deep in her pink pillow. "Sweet girl," I said, "I know it's hard, but you have to try to give to people what you want to experience in return. The kinder you are to people, the kinder they will be to you." I believed what I was saying, but at the same time I realized that it was not the whole truth. The truth is that there will always be mean girls, mean boys, mean people. It is the unfortunate nature of things.
So I told her that there will always be jerks, and even the most popular kids feel terrible about themselves sometimes. And I reminded her about the little girl she is most connected to, another child who has social challenges, whom she loves so ardently it often brings me to tears. (If only they were in school together!) I reminded her that no matter what, that very special girl will always, always be her biggest ally and dearest friend.
Sometimes it still comes as a shock that my kids have this other complex life happening outside the safety of our home, and that they are engaging with the world as unique, independent people who have gifts, strengths and frailties. It is at these moments that I pray all of the encouragement we give them to be polite, to be thoughtful and kind, to be smart, empathetic and fun comes to fruition.
It is at these times that, honestly, I feel the fear and anxiety that can come with the enormity of raising children. How do I teach this girl of mine, who is so sensitive, who doesn’t really understand the social language of children, who just wants to fit in, to be strong of heart and self? How do I teach my children to not only be good people, but to be their best selves?
As I stood outside in the cold this morning waiting at the bus stop with my kids, I realized that I don’t have the answers to these questions. I may never have the answer. The only thing I have is love. So I will love this girl, and I will love her brothers, and hope that for now that is enough.
Sad Child, School Bully photo via Shutterstock.
More from parenting