A few days ago, we were watching Parenthood. It’s one of those shows that Julie watches more than I do, but not one that actually make me leave the room. (I’m looking at you, Glee.) This week, however, a plot point caught our attention, like I’m sure it did with any special needs parent who watched. That’s quite a few, I know; the show is extremely popular with a lot of parents of kids who are different because of Max, a little boy on the show who has Asperger’s Syndrome. My daughter is not on the spectrum, but there are some universal experiences that come up on the show every so often (although perhaps less frequently than you might imagine).
This week, Max was a member of a math club decathlon kind of a thing, and his reports to his parents about the experience were resoundingly positive. The other club members were his friends, he insisted, and when they laughed when he engaged in repetitive stimming motions, they were doing so because they were so impressed with his math skills.
His parents discussed the situation, and when his mother said that she thought the other kids were making fun of Max without him even realizing it, Julie and I looked at each other, slightly wide-eyed. I said what we were both thinking.
“That’s one of my biggest fears with Schuyler.”
The episode went on to show the parents witnessing the actions of the other hop-in-the-ass punky kids, and in the end, the mother confronted the most egregious bully and let him have it. “Be a friend, not a bully,” she concluded. Cue the applause by parents of bullied kids everywhere.
Another blogger asked if the mother was correct in directly confronting the bully the way she did and it’s a valid question. But I think for many of us who worry about our kids when they’re the ones who are naive enough that they very well may not even know they’re being made fun of, it’s something of an academic question.
First of all, I think a lot of us might be asking a different question. Not so much if we would intervene in a situation where we saw our kid being bullied, but rather how big of a stick we’d find before doing so. Because seriously.
More than that, however, the reality of bullying is that it mostly takes place out of the view of parents and teachers. We find out secondhand, and often after the problem has existed for a very long time. For kids like Schuyler who have communication issues and for those who misread social cues and are generally trusting, I suspect some of it is never detected. And for the parents of these kids, the fear of unreported and even unrecognized abuse is very real. Like most of the things that scare us all, there is an exponential relationship between how much information we don’t have and the intensity of that fear.
It should matter to us that neither Schuyler nor her teachers at her new school have ever suggested that such a thing might be happening. And while we have observed how Schuyler exists apart from most of her neurotypical classmates, we’ve also only ever seen them treat her with respect and affection. Shouldn’t that be enough for us? Absolutely. When Schuyler told us that the boy on whom she has had her girly little eye for a year or so told her that she smelled nice the other day, should we have believed her, without wondering if he was being sincere or if it was part of something ugly that she might not even recognize as such? Surely looking for that big stick wasn’t an appropriate response, right?
Yet there’s that internal voice, the one that protects and anticipates but can also smother our kids’ independence and pilot the helicopter if we let it. And it whispers to us. Well, of course they’re nice to her. You’re standing right there. Just imagine what they say and do to her when you’re gone…
So we try to laugh at our fears and trust that the world might just be a better place than we give it credit for. And then the next morning, we see the report on the Today Show, about the ten year-old girl who hanged herself to death because she was being bullied in school. Ten years old. In fifth grade. The teachers and counselors were having a hard time explaining it to her classmates because most of them had no real solid concept of death or suicide or irrevocable choices. One girl said that she learned that death wasn’t something you could just come back from. We’re left to wonder if the poor girl who made such a sad and terrible choice understood the price she would pay for escape.
As a parent of a child who is different, a little girl who is sensitive and trusting and vulnerable even as she is strong, and one who wants so very much to fit in, I can tell you that it is very much the things unseen that keep me up late at night, the things that might remain unrevealed until they have completely and irreversibly done their wicked work. Some of those hidden monsters live in her different, broken, beautiful brain. But not most of them. And not the worst of them, either.