I didn’t like the look on my son’s face when I picked him up from his after-school program one day. He looked sullen, slightly depressed, and when I asked what was wrong, he put one hand up and said, “I don’t wanna talk about it.” Immediately, I knew something was seriously wrong because this routine conversation was usually filled with all of the details of a day in the life of a grade school boy; it’s one of my favorite bonding moments with him.
I didn’t push him and simply said, “Well, if you change your mind, I’m willing to listen.”
On the bus ride, he leaned his head on my shoulder and said, “I don’t want to stay in this school anymore, Mom. The kids are really mean to me.”
My heart sank and I assumed the worst — my son was being bullied. We went on to have a conversation during which I discovered that the boys in his class were poking fun at him because of the shoes he wore, a pair of black classic Adidas. His dad picked them out because, like me, he is an old-school hip hop lover and Adidas are classics! I didn’t understand why the kids would make fun of him, but apparently they were taunting him, saying his shoes were ugly and teasing him with the popular Vine meme, “What are thossssseeeee?”
I spoke with his dad about it, as co-parents do, and his dad said he needed to learn to not place such value in his clothing because clothes and shoes don’t make him who he is. On the surface, I agreed; we liked the school’s uniform policy because we believed it would minimize taunting that children engage in around the style of clothing chosen for them by their parents.
I learned quickly, however, that even when children wear uniforms, they will find something else to focus on as a way of establishing some hierarchy among themselves. Shoes, haircuts, watches — it doesn’t matter; whatever they can find to single other children out as being somehow lesser, they will find it.
This happened at a time when we noticed his grades slipping a bit, and we found ourselves having more conversations with his teachers about his behavior, which was spiraling out of control. He was talking more in class, trying to be the class clown, they said. I realized he was making efforts to get the kids to like him by being funny. What I learned, though, was that his jokes were often as mean as the ones made about him, and after more conversation, we realized he was just trying to fit in and stave off some of the harsh treatment he was receiving.
When it escalated into physical altercations, I took matters into my own hands: I bought him a $90 pair of black Jordans.
I didn’t tell him where we were going, as I wanted it to be a surprise. I convinced myself I was just doing something special for my baby. What mother doesn’t want to see that bright, excited smile when her child gets something new that they like? We tried on a few pairs of shoes and settled on a really nice pair of plain black sneakers with the infamous Jordan icon on them. Deep down, I knew I purchased them to make things easier for him at school, but I didn’t want to tell him that because I didn’t want him to become comfortable with the idea of acquiescing to bullying tactics by mean boys. Still, I didn’t like seeing the impact this teasing had on him and I wanted to alleviate it, even if in a small way.
And it worked.
And it pissed me all the way off.
I was so bothered that the easiest way to minimize the harsh, petty attacks by children, who had maybe been raised to place entirely too much value in clothing, was to buy more expensive, socially acceptable shoes. It really angered me. I sat with it for a long while and chastised myself for giving in. His father was not a fan, and I definitely understand his point of view. He wants our son to learn to be an individual and stand up for himself without giving into peer pressure. I do, too, but… that’s still my precious little guy.
Then I thought to myself, Things are so much easier now for him. Why am I upset? His grades improved—he even got a blue day (the top distinction for a day of incredible behavior)! He felt more comfortable in his new shoes and he was proud of them. I realized that ultimately, that’s what mattered most to me: My son felt better about himself and he was doing way better in school during a crucial year of statewide testing and promotional consideration to middle school.
A couple of months later, he needed a different pair of shoes for a recital in his after-school program. They asked for simple black-and-white Chuck Taylors, another hip hop classic! I was happy to get those for him, and for the last two weeks of school, he wore those during the day instead of his Jordans. When I asked him why he wasn’t wearing his Jordans anymore, he shrugged and stated simply, “I like these better. I don’t care what the other kids think.” Somewhere along the way, he decided that what he liked was more important than what the other children told him he should like, and he was fine with being different.
While it didn’t come from me, and I admittedly caved to the pressure of my son’s peers, he learned one of the most important lessons a child ever learns. And he learned it on his own time and in his own way. Isn’t that what we really want for our children anyway?
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