Betty Duffy

Monday, July 16, 2012

Little Bullies

My two girl cousins, my sister, and I all had the same kind of dolls when we were little--Sasha dolls--which were Swiss dolls with vague anatomical features and hair you could wash and style. We each had a boy, a girl, and a baby.

When I get my dolls out to show my daughter, she'll ask, "What are their names?!" And I sort of wince, because naming my Sasha dolls was one of those experiences in life which ends up being way more indicative of personal flaws than it should be. In short, after 30 plus years, I don't really know what their names are.

When we first received the dolls, the older girls quickly picked out all the "good" names--Anna Elizabeth, James, John (though they were good in my mind only because my older cousins had said they were good.) And then, because I was the youngest and I irritated them, they suggested I name my girl Deborah.

I had a babysitter named Deborah who was a cheerleader, and very pretty, so that's what I called my girl doll, quite happily, until shortly thereafter when the older girls started repeating the name, Deb, deb deb, Debby, debby debby--until it sounded really stupid and I started to hate it.

When I wanted to change her name, the older girls said, Hey, what about Samantha, and then you can name the boy Darren and the baby Tabitha after the characters in "Bewitched." Believe it or not, I fell for their suggestion again--until the teasing started again--and then I ousted those names and just called the dolls whatever I wanted to in my head.

I changed their names all the time, and sometimes made them be siblings, and sometimes I made them get married and have the baby--and all of this shrouded my set of dolls, I believed, in a cloud of questionable relations and identities, where my sister's and my cousins' dolls were all respectable siblings with Elizabethan names.

You hate to say that some particular situation in your childhood made you what you are today, but this one-- the naming of the dolls--made me feel cheap. I suspected that I was too easily manipulated, unmoored, weak, and lacking in character.

I sort of preferred the Barbie dolls to the Sasha dolls, then, because there was no pretense with them that they were anything other than cheap slutty dolls that didn't need a solid family and a good name.

I don't mention this story to castigate my old playmates. They're still my playmates and I love them, and I did turn around and find my own easily manipulatable younger siblings, cousins and playmates to terrorize as well, perhaps spawning in them their own secret doubts about their good character. I have one friend who still reminds me how I used to tell her she was out of style on the school bus in second grade (because I was jealous that she had her ears pierced and wore dangly earrings).

Kids will be kids, I want to say and they all establish hierarchies and come into their powers by dubious means.

But I go back sometimes, to the childhood days when I was always the brat nobody wanted around--annoying to my elders, unkind to my peers and anyone younger--and I wonder what gives. Was I just a difficult person? Or was there some sort of intervention that might have been applied way back when, that might have stopped the many chain reactions that made me the dazzlingly cranky person I am today?

A friend of ours took his son to the playground several years ago when they were living in Mexico. Another boy there was making fun of his son and saying he had big ears or something like that. When our friend caught wind of the teasing, he went to the little boy and said, "You think my kid's ears are funny? Well, I think you're the ugliest little mother effer in Mexico."

I remembered this story yesterday when I found myself stomping across the playground to call out a little hotdog who'd been repetitively shoving one of my boys off the playground equipment. My kids had earlier reported that this same boy was calling my kid "penie-boy" because he had ill-advisedly worn the last dry swimsuit to the park, his swim team speedo trunks that come to his knees but are as tight as biker shorts.

The boy saw me coming and I pointed to him and told him to come here. Strangely, he obeyed, and when we met, I got down on his eye level and said, "I've been watching you shoving, hitting, calling people names, and you're going to stop."

"I didn't do anything," he said.

"I saw you."

He started to protest.

"I saw you," I said, and then he made a swatting motion towards me as he turned his back and walked away.

When I first heard our friend's tale about name-calling the young bully on a Mexican playground, I was a little scandalized, but I get it now. There's nothing more heartbreaking than watching one of your children get pushed around. It's very easy to lose your head in such circumstances.

I called my kids together and we left the park, just in case there was a parent-figure somewhere nearby attached to this child who might have been annoyed by my wagging my finger at him. And I thanked God that knowing exactly what I would like to call others has never been my forte, or this stranger child might have received the name to end all names.

"Thanks Mom," my son said as we were leaving, and while I was glad that he was removed from the situation, I also wondered if I had usurped something from him, either a little bit of dignity he might have gained from sticking up for himself, or a stitch of glee in the gradual, lifelong revelation that his identity is not bound by assumptions made about oneself during these childhood skirmishes.

It's a lesson that took me a long time to learn--possibly when meeting someone as an adult that I had long ago terrorized, I felt chagrinned to know that they remembered me that way, as a bully. I didn't feel like a bully any more. I wanted to be nice. And I wanted to tell them that I've changed, I'm new these days--you see, I'm undergoing conversion.

It can be terribly discouraging when people you've known forever are reluctant to allow you've changed. At the same time, it's one of those stubborn effects of sin that stick around long after the sin has been forgiven.

Perhaps more difficult than revising old impressions of other people, however, is having confidence enough in Christ's redemption to make necessary adjustments in our own souls.

I can tell my son, You are free to be different today than you were yesterday, to be a new creation each day, because each day is a new creation, and hopefully, I can spare him the decades it took me to discover this concept. If you have asked for his help, Christ has released you from yesterday's sins, shortcomings, and humiliations. There's nothing lingering to prohibit your progress in sanctity.

To me it's a more effective response to both the childhood bully and the childhood whipping boy (who are often one and the same) than shrugging our shoulders and saying, kids will be kids.

If I'd had my head on straight, I might also have mentioned it to the little boy I chastised on the playground.


Rebekka said...

I was both bullied and a bully too. I hated school. Hated it. And I made my younger sisters' lives miserable.

Joanne said...

It is really, really hard for me not to tell off some kid that is being mean to my kid. One time at a splash park, this kid pointed at my son, who was six at the time and wearing a swim diaper under his swimsuit. He has autism and has been slow to toilet train, although we are getting there. So this kid, about my son's age, pointed at him and said something to his sister or friend. I heard him and saw him and I said to him, "do you want to know why he is wearing a swim diaper or do you just want to point at him?". He ran off crying and his mom made him come over and apologize and then SHE came over and ugh, Lord, it was such a to-do! But I was glad she was so nice and I was also glad that I didn't just yell at him like I wanted to! I want to set a good example for my kids but it feels very challenging, I feel so nervous and scared when they are confronted.

Emily J. said...

Wanting to slapdown the bully doesn't stop when your kid gets bigger - I wanted to smack some punk Navy EOD guy's head tonight after he knocked my teenager down and then had a potty mouth all night long during a "friendly" command soccer game. Good thing I wasn't at the game. My claws were bared just hearing about it.

And, uh, sorry about the name thing. We were just jealous that you were so cute.

mommyadventuresintx said...

Good for you for standing up for your son. I had no problems naming my dolls when they were little, but they ended up with unfortunate names regardless. My favorite 3 dolls were named Tina, Nina, and Tuna. Granted I was 4, but it's still terribly unfortunate.

My best friend and I were remarkably fair while playing dolls. We developed an insanely elaborate system for playing Barbie as far as how much things were "worth." If you got the house, the other person got the car, and you ended up with the purple fur coat (a most desirable item), and so on. It took half of the playtime just to divvy up the accessories, but I'm amazed at how we never argued!

Peter and Nancy said...

I think it is perfectly okay to step in at the park to stick up for your (or others') children. I usually ask my kids if they attempted to handle it on their own first, though -- I don't want them to miss opportunities to be brave because they know I'll speak up. And I try to handle it in ways that allow the other kids to keep their dignity.

On the last day of school, a bunch of families met up at a park afterward, and a group of kids from my son's grade had some trouble. There was hitting, and an f-bomb (from a 4th grader), so I just told them they had to come back by the grownups because no one was having fun with behavior like that. My son wasn't involved (another one of my kids came to get me), but someone needed to step in and save them from themselves.

Later, my son used that choice word he'd heard from his friend. Ugh. But we talked about how sad it was that his friend hears that all the time at home. My son cried tears for his friend and his family. And then I made him pay me 2 weeks of allowance for using that word where his younger sister could've heard it.

Dwija {House Unseen} said...

Can you not, like, make me cry all the time? Dang, Betty! Fabulous, as always...

BettyDuffy said...

I believe Tuna takes the cake in the history of unfortunate doll names.