From the second they’re born, we want to protect our kids. In the delivery room, the doctors can’t hand them to us fast enough.
Never mind that we just gave birth, and possibly someone’s stitching us up where the sun don’t shine. We want to hold them, cradle them into safety.
They take their first steps with us holding fast to tiny hands. They hear their first songs because we sing them.
Then, we get those gut-punching, searingly painful moments when we realize they’ve toddled and walked and run to a point in their lives where we can’t protect them anymore.
For me, that punch came driving my little girl home from second grade, when I asked “how was your day?”
A tiny voice in the back seat sighed and said, “Sad. Alyssa said no one could to talk to me today.”
Alyssa (and of course, no, that’s not her real name), ruled my daughter’s second-grade classroom. Not the teacher, too young and inexperienced to deal with the bullying. Alyssa reigned.
She would send my daughter home with assignments. “Color this for me or no one can talk to you.”
She made an identical animal habitat box as my daughter, and told everyone my daughter copied her. Never mind that my child was the only second grader at the school who knew what a fennec fox even was, and brought her project in three days early, where Alyssa transcribed her report down point for point.
I fought back as best I could. We would role-play, and talk about things she could say in response. We talked about standing up for yourself. I met with her teacher. We would talk about setting boundaries, and the importance of standing up for yourself.
The bullying would wax and wane, but was never extinguished. Mostly because like a moth to a flame, my daughter would forgive Alyssa and befriend her again. Get close again, and get hurt.
Finally one day, when my daughter won a coveted fitness buddy medal, Alyssa threatened her. “Give it to me or no one is allowed to talk to you at recess all month.”
And at that, my daughter had enough. She said “no.”
In the car that afternoon, she was exuberant with the power of standing up for herself. We did a “I’m not gonna take it dance” in the kitchen.
Then, the next day, I got a call from the assistant principal. In revenge, Alyssa had told all the kids in the second-grade class that my daughter had sex with her dogs.
Told all the kids. In her second-grade class. That my daughter had sex with her dogs.
Honestly, if I could have reached Alyssa in the moment I heard that, I would have slapped her to the ground. Never mind she was only eight. I wanted to tell my daughter every family secret this girl’s mother had ever shared over coffee, and arm her with the real dirt to fight back the vicious lies. I wanted her out of the school, out of the class, out of our lives forever.
And mostly, I wanted my daughter to never speak to her again. I asked her why, when Alyssa hurt her over and over, she would still forgive her, still talk to her, still be her friend.
“What kind of friend does that?” I remember screaming in frustration as we drove home. “She’s not your friend.”
I can still hear her, the quiet voice from the back seat.
“Mom, it’s not about what kind of friend she is to me. It’s about what kind of friend I am to her.”
I realized in that moment, that she was not choosing to be a victim from some place of weakness. She was choosing to forgive, from a place of great strength. More strength than Alyssa’s bullying would ever have.
Of course, the bullying hurt. But she was not letting it change her. She refused to participate when Alyssa chose another target. She spoke up for herself, she found adults who would hold Alyssa accountable. But then, she chose to forgive, and be kind anyway.
I didn’t stop worrying. I didn’t stop wanting to protect her, didn’t stop talking to her about making good choices in her friends. But I stopped seeing her as a victim.
She and Alyssa were never in the same class again, but as it got close to elementary school graduation, I watched in the pick-up line as my daughter hugged this girl goodbye.
And when I expressed some surprise, the voice in the back seat said “Oh, she’s changed. She’s nice now.”