The word hung in my kitchen’s air, my little girl’s tiny voice shouting words at her brother that she didn’t know the meaning of but knew they were meant to be hurtful. My 15-year-old son stared at her, trying to not laugh at her preschool-aged anger while also showing the appropriate amount of “upsetness” at her insult. He is, in fact, quite the opposite — tall and lanky — and my Spanish mother is constantly trying to shove food down his gullet out of fear of him blowing away in the wind.
I call her name from the hallway and notice her tears. She is a fire starter, my little girl, full of energy and impatience but never malice. Her tears are sincere and she knows what’s coming. The bar of soap is quickly swiped across her tongue and she runs to her room crying. I talk to her calmly and tell her it’s not okay to call her brother names, that name-calling is mean and hurtful, even if she is upset and frustrated. She tells me she learned the word at school but won’t tell me how or when. Soon she leaves to apologize to her brother and our world is quiet again. Fatty is forgotten for the moment.
Later that evening my son came to me, upset. Of course he’s not upset over being called a fatty, he’s upset over how his sister learned the word. He, too, explained to her that it’s not nice to call people names and the person who taught her that word shouldn’t be saying it. That’s when his little sister confided in him that her friend at school calls her names like fatty, stupid, or dummy all the time, but tells her to not tell anyone or else she won’t be her friend anymore. It has to be kept a secret. All of sudden puzzling behavior like my little girl went from being excited about preschool everyday to not wanting to go anymore and looking for excuses to stay home made sense. This classmate of hers at school was bullying her under the guise of secrecy and friendship. I was furious and I felt ill.
First and foremost it was vital I spoke to my daughter and explained to her the difference between good and bad secrets. Second, we talked about that it was only okay to keep good secrets and not bad secrets. Being called mean names and told not to tell anyone is definitely a bad secret because secrets shouldn’t make us feel bad about ourselves or other people. Last and most important we talked about how our friends should help us feel good about ourselves and help us feel happy about our day, not sad and yucky inside. Between this and an email to her teacher along with a follow-up conversation at the preschool everything has been more or less resolved.
However, I still feel unsettled about this other child. It saddens me that already at the age of 4 or possibly 5 years old this young girl has already learned to not only call other people names (which is not unusual) but to also use the name calling to manipulate others. I would understand her telling my little girl one time, “Don’t tell anyone so we don’t get in trouble” far more than I am willing to accept her repeated reminder to my child, “If you don’t keep this a secret I won’t be your friend anymore.”
This whole experience has reminded me how important it is to stay as involved as I am in my children’s lives and maintain daily conversations with them both. I am grateful that my son was able to use that as a model for his own conversation with his little sister. Children pay attention to everything we say and do. I’m thankful that in this situation my little girl talked to her brother and was able to learn about good and bad secrets in a fairly innocuous circumstance.