When I was a kid, I wanted to disappear. I didn't have much resilience, and didn't know how to protect myself from the typical schoolyard bullying of the eighties. I felt small and dark and afraid, and spent many lunch-hours sitting out on a small, hidden bluff, hoping desperately that nobody would find me, and with a number of shrubby, mossy escape-routes already mapped out. Hiding was my solution to a social situation I wasn't prepared for. I escaped grade school into high school and became weird and vaguely threatening as a means of keeping other kids at bay. It worked, and I was lonely. Throughout the first thirty years of my life, I assumed the problem was me. I assumed I was just simply anti-social. Worthless.
It wasn't until I was a mother
that my desperation to save my own children from the same fate caused me to really consider how I could prepare them for the culture that had crushed my own childhood. I began with keeping them home from school in order to protect them, but amazingly, it was a piece of wisdom from their school-going friend that finally helped me see a real escape-route: how we raise our children, and the society we build for them, matters entirely. We can look thoughtfully at our schools and other community groups just like we can carefully consider our home environment, and how those things make or break our children's mental health.
Once in those middle-years of raising my children, a boy I love very much and who I consider an extra son had this conversation with me:
What are we to do, as parents of children who our own community vilifies for the mere fact they're boys? I've been a feminist, all my life (yes, I've been fighting for my own and my mother's rights since before I ever heard the word 'feminism'). And I'm surrounded by the anger of my fellow feminists over boys who are excused from terrible crimes because their social status is at stake. I'm aware that those excuses leave girls unsupported; women languishing in shame and lifetimes of victimization. But as a mother of a boy, I also think about the boys. The 'social status' or 'future prospects' argument sure sounds hideously arrogant and small-minded, but maybe it's worth looking at. Those boys' and mens' social status may be what pushed them to commit the crimes in the first place.
Perpetrators of abuse are usually victims of some form of abuse, themselves. That doesn't excuse their actions, it opens up a door for healing. It opens a door for us to see them as humans in need of help. In fact, it opens a door for us to look at every single child as a potential victim of abuse (familial, scholastic, societal, sexual, intellectual, etc.) and set them up to be resilient and--hopefully--to avoid abusive situations.
It was all very simple for me to assume that my kids would be safe from the schoolyard bullies because I didn't send them to school, but isolation from their own community isn't a solution, either. Both of my kids did end up attending some form of school in the few years after my conversation with their friend, and we did deal with the kinds of social trauma that happen there. However, the best thing I think I ever did in this respect was keep them home in the first place.
I and my husband unschooled our kids at home from Kindergarten to grades six and seven, respectively. They weren't isolated while they unschooled, because we did have a small community of other home- and unschoolers that we visited with multiple times a week. Picture groups of three to ten kids of all ages and their three or five parents all hanging out together at a park. Or maybe somebody's house. It was messy, it was chaotic, but it was whole. And by whole I mean that each gathering was a motley collection of different ages and types of people, all awkwardly sorting out social cues and each other's needs and values, in each moment, all the time. Together. We were a whole. Of course there were disagreements and social issues that came up among kids in the group, but the parents were involved in each moment, and were developing and modeling our own social skills in front of the kids, all the time. Our kids learned to respect each other, and more importantly, they learned to respect themselves and their own needs.
Because so many of them were unschooled, and the play-times were for leisure, with no expectations of 'learning', kids weren't obliged to come along, and when they did they weren't obliged to participate. If something felt wrong to them, they could step aside and nobody would fault them for it. They learned to trust themselves in this way; they learned self-preservation that didn't rely upon reactive, hurtful behaviour. They learned practical social coping strategies from free, open play in a supportive environment, and by watching their parents engage with thoughtful empathy and a sense of enjoyment.
When my kids went to school, they both eventually experienced some form of social cruelty. I can't say they weren't harmed--they were. But pain happens in life. Other people do and say things that hurt us. We can have compassion for those people, but we can't change them by changing who we are. That's a lesson I am still learning now in my forties, but my children had apparently learned it by the time they were young teens. And I note that so had many of their homeschooled peers.
So no, I'm not saying everybody should keep their kids home. I know that's not an option for most people, nor is it desired by many. But I feel like there must be a better way to raise our kids so that they develop a sense of self-worth. Boys and girls are equally susceptible to the degradation of self-worth that happens in the schoolyard and in our culture in general. Boys are more often encouraged by our culture to preserve their dignity and physical safety with violence, cruelty, and a kind of masculine arrogance. Girls are encouraged to do so by emotionally belittling other girls, by remaining calm in the face of fear, and by not taking up too much space, physically, intellectually, or emotionally. All are expected to conform. And may heaven help you if you don't fit the mold.
Can we just stop this now? No, I know it's not that easy to change centuries of cultural learning. But we can sure try harder! I would like for all children to spend their time in small, supported groups of mixed ages, genders, cultural backgrounds and political ideals. Free exploration in a supported, diverse environment is how we learn to really see other people, and it's how we learn empathy, as well as real dignity and self-awareness.
That once-ten-year-old boy who told me my home felt like preschool is now eighteen. He's studying computer science and he still comes by and talks to me about his life. He's not here mainly to visit me; he's here to visit my son, who considers him a best friend. But he also takes time to talk to me. He takes time to talk to my daughter, who considers him an extra brother. He has grown out of those schoolyard bully days to find a path in his life that feels right. He doesn't have to swear just to keep himself safe, anymore. Probably through his amazing self-awareness, as well as his many social connections with people from all walks of life, my 'extra son' has grown out of the culture that limited him as a child, and is one of the beautiful young men emerging as a new adult in this world.
We can learn to live and tumble along with our culture's faults, or we can heal them, and thrive. We're never going to keep our children safe from pain and struggle. Hard times and heartbreak are part of life, and how we get through them is how we grow. But we can build diverse, supportive environments for our children and for ourselves, so that the getting through is easier, safer, and conducive to personal growth.