“Mom, I had a bad dream,” my 6-year-old whispered, interrupting my new constant middle-of-the-night ritual: worrying, while staring at the ceiling. This was a project I generally took on alone. Tonight, however, I had a partner.
With my kid cuddled close, he told me about the scary, nameless monster that had been chasing him. As we lay there staring at the ceiling, I realized I knew this dream. The only difference was my own monster had a name. It was called “Elementary School,” and I’d been running from it all summer long, wondering if I should send him back into its arms in the fall.
Let’s face it: I hadn’t been sleeping well for a while. Where once I could doze soundly through a thunderstorm (or my husband snoring like a thunderstorm) lately, if my cat were to blink, I’d be up. It started a month before the pandemic even began, and my wheels haven’t stopped turning since. That particular pre-pandemic week, my first grader had asked me and his dad to meet him at school for lunch. When we showed up, he flew into my arms sobbing. Between his hiccuppy cries, he told me about the boys and girls who had teased him for not being able to play a game. My heart fell into my stomach, and my body shifted into protective mom mode. I tried to find words to validate his experience, and I held him close. Perhaps there was a simple explanation.
But nope. His teacher walked over and confirmed my fears and his story. Yes, there had been teasing in his P.E. class, and it had escalated to a point where the teachers felt it necessary to have extensive Daniel Tiger-esque conversations about empathy and friendship. I was relieved the adults had intervened, but I could feel my son’s arms tightening around me as his teacher spoke; he was reeling from the fallout.
I know that some versions of teasing can be bonding and even help kids deal with criticism in a constructive way. If this had been the first time for the not-so-nice teasing, I might still be sleeping at night. But it wasn’t, and I’m not. There were other times throughout the year when classmates had hurled classics at my kid like, “You’re too short to play soccer with us.”
Teasing like this leads my son to shut down his heart. It’s a reaction that scares me to my bones. What if these events eventually reshape my son’s vulnerability into something hard and immovable — or worse yet, dangerously sad?
One night after staring at the ceiling, I awoke to a worldwide pandemic and homeschooling. Fretting about my kid being teased was replaced by heavier issues like navigating a potentially deadly virus. We socially distanced together keeping each other safe, and life took on an unfamiliar frantic momentum. I remember thinking about my son’s heart getting a break from hurt feelings — or not. Online school would trigger a memory and he’d talk about that time in PE when he cried. This was followed up by asking if classmates could say “hurtful things” through a computer. It was my turn to have my heart poked open. Had I totally failed at protecting his sensitive heart?
So, now I’m up at night berating myself for not being my son’s voice when he couldn’t find his, doubting that his school can stop a contagious virus from entering its halls, and wondering if I’m allowed to feel confident in our toilet paper situation. Feeling sure about our toilet paper was one thing, but feeling fearless about sending my son to school during a pandemic was something else completely.
For many health related reasons, my husband and I were unsure about our son going to school in-person. That topped our Reasons Not To Go To School In-Person list. With an online option available, we decided to go virtual to protect our son physically — and emotionally. This option will also give us more time to heal the effects of the teasing still come up. So, it’s time to dip our toes into this homeschooling pool for reals and implement some other awesome tools that I came up with very late at night.
As much as I’d love to be able to keep my kid emotionally safe from the teasers forever, that’s probably not possible. So I’m creating a better support plan for this year because I want my son to feel I’m always here to protect and encourage his vulnerability. I’m talking to a few trusted friends also going virtual. I hope we can create a tiny, safe study group so he can experience support and trust as the the norm and teasing as the anomaly. My goal is that if/when we choose in-person school again he’ll know the difference between those who truly care for him and those who don’t.
Yeah, spending all that time starting at my ceiling helped me realize, too, that my kid’s sensitive soul needs more immediate adult support to help his lingering effects linger less. So, I’ll be sure to partner up with his teachers or other supervising adults. Being a caring parent isn’t the same as being an interfering one. For now, going virtual is a good decision for us and hopefully it will be enough to get the nightmarish monsters to stop chasing me — and my kid.
Whether you’re homeschooling or heading back IRL, these fun back-to-school supplies will make it more exciting.