Meanness, Innocence, and Defense / by Carey Pace


*This post is part of a collaborative project - a year of stories shared by a group of 15 photographers every Monday in 2016.  Please visit Allison Gipson after you read this post to continue the circle.  *

I saw it the moment she walked in the door that Friday evening.  Something was wrong. Not her normal 'I didn't get my way' kind of wrong but a deep, consequential wrong. In a millisecond I had time to think a thousand year's worth of thoughts.  

I had forgotten.  

I had forgotten to warn her about going to this new place, and what people may do. I had neglected to remind her to keep her guard up. To be wise. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I'm the ultra paranoid mom. I'm the one who won't let them go to the YMCA parent's night out. I'm the one standing outside the men's restroom door, calling in to my son every thirty seconds. I attended every moment of five day, ALL day, basketball camp, that took place an hour away because I didn't trust. We don't do sleepovers. Period. Heck, we've not had a playdate yet here in Virginia. And this one time, I just forgot. I didn't think. We've been here six months and I relaxed too far. What had I done!?

My husband helps coach my son's basketball team and they had practice that Friday night. As they loaded up in the van, she begged to go. Coming off of Christmas break with just our family surrounding her, her little uber-extrovert self couldn't resist the potential of other kids to play with while the practice occured. My uber-introvert self couldn't resist the allure of two hours alone. So at the spur of the moment, off she went with them at 6pm on a Friday night to an elementary school gym where just our team (and whoever brought them) was practicing.

I hadn't told her not to go to the bathroom (who knows who could be hiding in a stall waiting for an unsuspecting little girl?). I hadn't told her to stay where SHE could see Daddy (because predators know and look for little victims who stray out of sight when Daddy or Mommy aren't watching). No water fountain if it was in the hallway outside the gym! I hadn't reminded her that if anyone EVER made her feel uncomfortable AT ALL that she was to run away (because we have to learn to trust our instincts. Predators hope you'll rely on common courtesy, afraid to be rude, and give them an open door to pounce). I hadn't warned her that it isn't just adult men-strangers she needed to be wary of but also adult women-strangers (because women molest little girls, too). I hadn't reminded her that if anyone ever tried to see or touch her private parts, she was to get away. I hadn't reminded her that if anyone ever tried to show her theirs, she was to run away.  

In that millisecond, my mind raced with all the possibilities of what had happened to her in those two hours of selfish introvert time. What had she seen? What had been done to her? Who had hurt her? I felt the contents of my stomach rise into my throat. I value imagination so much, but an imagination can go to the negative just as quickly as it can go to the positive.  

"What's wrong?" I urged her. My tone dripped compassion and the acknowledgement that something terrible had taken place. I think she knew that I knew she needed me in this moment. "Can we go talk in my bedroom, Momma?" She quietly pleaded. She always asks to talk in her bedroom when it's something bad or private. My heart sank further.  

At that time, my husband walked through the door into the kitchen where we stood. He saw her hiding her head in the crook of my neck, and he asked her what was wrong. Again she asked to go to her bedroom, which made me fear the worst even more. I was sensing that she felt ashamed and I could have vomited at my role in all of this but tried to remain outwardly calm. Shawn opened the door of the story and said, "Was someone mean to you?" 

Somehow he had an idea of what had gone down, and he wasn't panicked. He tends to be the one who stays calm during a storm, while I am the Reactor. I've been working on that the last few years, but as you can see, I've yet to overcome it. My only hope in all of this is that the Lady didn't sense my inner panic up to this point, but only compassion and love. Shawn's calm helped me to remain calm to hear what she could tell us. 

"There was a boy there. And he was mean. He said mean things to me. Very mean things. And it made me really bad want to cry." She squeaked it out and then began sobbing.  

I fear my response wasn't as soothing as it could have been at that initial moment because I felt such incredible relief that she wasn't molested or had viewed something inappropriate in my absence. It was as if my body thought this little "mean" issue was simply ridiculous in light of what COULD have happened. Finally, the more she shared, the more uber-paranoid Carey relented and rational-Carey stepped up.  

It turns out that this little boy and his comrades, who were younger than my Lady is, said some very cruel things to her for no apparent reason. She's so pure and innocent. She's led such a sheltered life in regards to meanness. She was shocked that someone could be so fiercely mean spirited. Now, we've dealt already with much more "Mean Girl" behavior than I ever would have dreamed by the age of 7. It began in preschool. It endured in kindergarten and first grade. I coached her daily about how We Teach Others How To Treat Us By What We Allow. And despite my hopes that Virginia would give us a classroom full of other sweetly nice little girls just like her, it gave us real life girls with real life behavior fit for middle school at the age of seven. But this Mean-Girl behavior is more what I would label as manipulation. Sure, there is meanness involved, but there's a lot more drama and conniving than outright cruelty for the sake of being cruel. 

The Lady loves life. She is pure joy. She enjoys playing with anyone and everyone. She wants everyone to be included and happy. She was completely taken aback and crushed when this little boy nearly half her size insisted that "You SUCK!" He told her that she couldn't sing (even though there was no singing involved). He told her that she was slow and that he'd beat her in a race. And apparently a lot of other things she couldn't remember or verbalize. What I gathered from talking to her about this over the subsequent days is that it was not only the ugly words but the WAY HE SAID IT that made the biggest impression.  

She's been hurt by others' choices before, but never has anyone so blatantly and outrightly spoken to her with cruelty. And clearly, this little boy used his words like weapons, slaying anything that came his way. Strike first and you're never the one who gets hurt, right? It is amazing to me how these words that have no basis in reality, and had no basis for which to be spoken (it was random what he chose to say), still echo shards of doubt into her opinion of herself.  

That night as she confessed what had happened with the little boy in the Red Shirt, I held her and told her how sorry I was that it had happened. I assured her it wasn't true - that she does NOT suck. I started to try to explain why the boy may have done it, but then I tried to hold my tongue on the further instruction that could come. My husband started to talk to her about how not all people in the world were nice and further down that train of thought. But I was reminded of hearing Barnabus Piper speak on Family Life Today last year. 

Barnabas: I grew up in Phillips neighborhood in south Minneapolis. It’s a pretty diverse / pretty rough neighborhood. Just like any kid, I would take my bike out of the garage; and I would go ride around the neighborhood, just having fun. I must have been—I couldn’t have been any older than ten years old or right around then. I was riding around, and I ran into a group of neighborhood boys who I didn’t know. They were from a different part of the neighborhood. They stole my bike—knocked me off the bike, laughing, jumped on it, rode away. I was about three blocks from home.

I run home crying and I talked to my dad about this. He used that as lesson to me on suffering for the sake of the gospel—meaning: “We live in this neighborhood because it is where we are called to live. So, hard things happen as part of that calling.” My feeling, of course, as a ten year old, is: “I do not care! I want my bike back.” The pastor is looking at this from a different perspective, going: “There’s a lesson to be taught here. There is a calling here.” He wasn’t wrong, but it didn’t feel right to me.

*Dennis: *Truthfully, I read that—and I guess I got a little emotional because I was very intentional with my kids about teaching things that occurred in everyday life. There is certainly a good use for that, and we have to teach our children as we walk by the way—Deuteronomy 6 talks about that. But the lesson here is: “Sometimes, our kids—as you just well described—need a hug and need to hear, ‘I’m sorry. Now, let’s go see if we can find those guys,’”—just like you said.

Source: Family Life Today Podcast

Piper's sharing at how in that moment, what he needed from his dad was a sense of "what just happened to you? It wasn't right. It's not okay. And I'm not gonna let them get away with it!" really impacted me when I heard it last February. As parents we have the opportunity to be the champion for our children, instead of always the calm, rational, "let's move on" or "what can we learn from this" Instructor.  

Sometimes in the moment, they don't need to hear all the rational things. The Life Lessons. The Teachable Moments. Those things are valid things. And should be taught. But not necessarily in that very moment when it happened.  

Sometimes we need to allow them to FEEL what they feel. To face the Sadness. To face the hurt. We, as the moms and the dads, need to acknowledge the Sadness. Fear. Hurt. Lean into the Grief that will inevitably come their way. Hold them while they endure it. And perhaps "go find those guys." 

And later, once the sting has lost its initial potency, we can give them the broader perspective.  

I promised her I wouldn't send her back to basketball practice without me. She wasn't going to have to face that alone, ever again. I wasn't going to let him treat her that way. She has continued to bring this up over the last week or so. It was deeply hurtful to her. I have tried to point out how we have been dealing with Mean-Girls at school for some time. I've reminded her of the manipulation games that are played with the girls in her classroom now. She doesn't quite believe me when I try to explain what's going on with the behavior she observes at school. She thinks the best of everyone, always. (I wish I were more like her). She makes excuses for the other kids a lot. But this time, she came back with "but that little boy was just SO MUCH MORE MEAN." 

It hurts my heart that this story means she's lost a little bit of that innocence. That she now knows the world isn't a safe place. That not all people are nice people. Some people are mean. Cruel. People who are jealous can be cruel. People may always be jealous of her beauty. People may always be jealous of her sweet spirit. And then, there are the people who are mean because that is all they know. Hurt people hurt people, so the saying goes. He may have treated her that way because that is the only way he's ever been treated. I doubt we'll ever know.  

As the incident gets further behind us, we've talked more about these people who hurt us. We've talked about how we can stand up for ourselves in the moment and insist on common courtesy and respect.  We've talked about standing up for someone else we see being treated in this way. We've talked about how jealousy fuels cruelty. And we've also talked about how not everybody has a mommy and daddy who is kind to them, and who teaches them the importance of using kindness when interacting with others. It was a life lesson she needed to learn, but I so hate she had to learn it in this way. 

*This post is part of a collaborative project - a year of stories shared by a group of 15 photographers every Monday in 2016.  Please visit Allison Gipson after you read this post to continue the circle.  *

All of the photos were taken Saturday, one week after the incident, as we went about life.