Here’s what I wish I could say.
Your son arrived for the first week of school, wearing sharp new clothes and spotless sneakers, looking at least two inches taller than he’d been in June. As I do with all the returning students, I greeted him warmly and asked how his summer had been. He returned my smile as we chatted briefly. I felt a surge of optimism.
The whole campus buzzed with the excitement the beginning of any school year entails. Buses and cars disgorged wide-eyed sixth graders laden with new lunch totes, crossing the threshold into pre-adolescence. Seventh-graders arrived, their bodies surprisingly lengthened and sculpted by nine weeks of summer vacation, brandishing their backpacks with the assurance of seasoned veterans. The newly ascended eighth graders, your son included, greeted one another with the exuberance of long-lost comrades and swaggered into the niches of campus left vacant by last year’s graduating class. Again I felt that surge.
You may not believe this, because last year it so often fell to me to hold him accountable for his behavior, but I hoped that this year your son would be happier, more confident, and enjoy more success. It’s the same hope I hold for all of our students, but in your son’s case it carries extra urgency.
Last year he was a hanger-on with a group of boys in the class ahead of him, boys who were mostly delightful as individuals but who had developed a group dynamic that was unpleasant and disrespectful. Perhaps with those boys off in high school and without the pressure of their constant presence, your son might relax, might soften around the edges, might no longer feel the need to enlarge his sense of self by belittling others.
I’d been thinking about your son, off and on, for some days. I hoped that this could be the year where his better nature blossomed, because I know he has one.
By the end of the second day of classes, we had reports from teachers that your son was disrespectful and disruptive in class. My optimism began to fade. On the third day, we received a complaint from a parent, whose child your son had called a stupid asshole and a faggot. The account held much in common with the litany of similar incidents from last year. My heart sank.
Sadly, none of this is new. It seems that, rather than turning things around, your son has decided to step up his game. And, sadly, you are already formulating your defense of his behavior, while he defaults to his habitual denial of ever doing anything wrong.
When you, your son and members of the school administration meet, I will be there. I will conduct myself professionally and with reserve. It will not be appropriate to say the following things to you, but I will wish with all my heart that I could:
I know you love your son.
You ferry him to school daily, before you commute to your office, when he could take the bus. You see to it he is well-equipped with supplies, up-to-date equipment for his sports, nice clothes and good shoes. You hand-deliver fancy deli lunches to him at least once a week, in defiance of school policy.
I have sons of my own, and not one scintilla of doubt that your boy means as much to you as mine do to me. I am sure there is almost nothing you would not do for your son. But your love for him, like your son himself, needs to grow up.
Love does not mean believing everything your kid tells you.
Surely when your boy was two or three, you knew better than to take every garbled word he uttered as literal truth. He was in a stage of development that included testing his new language skills as well as his new reality. If he broke his sibling’s toy or dumped the cookie jar on the floor, you knew that when you asked him to tell you what happened he was likely to give you his version of events as he wished them to be, not as they were.
The same can be said of middle-school students who still struggle with taking responsibility for their actions. Yet this is one of the most critical things a child of thirteen or fourteen must learn if they are to proceed successfully and with any measure of safety into later adolescence and adulthood.
When you repeatedly reject all evidence of your child’s bullying behavior, resorting to ever more elaborate twists of logic to deflect responsibility onto his victims (“Of course he had trouble controlling himself; that kid makes him uncomfortable.”), you are not protecting him. Nor do you demonstrate your love for your son by believing every outrageous lie he tells you.
I don’t hate your son, and I am not out to get him.
Your son’s bullying behavior disturbs me. His knack for finding and exploiting the vulnerabilities of others is troubling. The evident pleasure he takes in doling out emotional torment is worrisome. But while I recoil at that behavior, I see it as separate from who he is. Your son is still a child, still malleable, and still within a window of opportunity for reshaping his attitude toward himself and others.
But that will be hard to do. It will mean upending all the strategies he’s already learned for avoiding tasks, avoiding responsibility, avoiding the necessary pain involved in growing up. It will mean holding himself to an ethical code, and developing that code to begin with. It will mean taking a long, honest look at himself and doing some hard and high-level thinking about the kind of man he wants to become.
It’s unlikely that he will choose to do this on his own, if you keep making it easy for him to dodge the challenge of maturity. Nor is this something you can do for him. If you could suspend your assumption that the adults at this school harbor a collective grudge against you and your son, you would find that we are your allies. We have resources to offer that, if you would accept them, could help him. And we’d all be ready and eager to cheer on his progress.
I’m not judging you. At least, not in the way you think.
Parenting adolescents is hard. And some adolescents are harder than others. One of my sons exhibited a mean streak when he was the same age as yours. Whether it was because he was caught up in a storm of hormones or due to negative influences from the media, or because he was hanging around with negative kids, or was experimenting with a clumsy macho persona, I didn’t know then and may never understand. We sure didn’t raise him that way.
When it became clear he was becoming a bully, it was a painful discovery to say the least. The shame, the guilt, and the fear were agonizing. I battered myself with blame. How had I failed so miserably as a mother?
It was a realization I would have loved to avoid. I get that part. But if I hadn’t faced that pain and gotten beyond its temporary paralysis, if his dad and I hadn’t taken action — which included family counseling and some heavy-duty consequences that were zero fun to oversee — I doubt he would be the successful, morally grounded and competent man he is today.
I don’t judge you for wishing this wasn’t happening. But I don’t accept your willful failure to acknowledge that your son is hurting other kids. Unless you spend your free time under a rock, you know what damage bullying can do.
It can be lasting. It can be deadly. That’s not something you or your son want to have to live with.
You shouldn’t have to face this alone.
As I learned, blaming yourself won’t help, and it does nothing to move you forward in taking positive steps. It’s also massively unfair. It’s not my place to ask why it’s always you taking the meetings and the phone calls with us, or why your husband gets to shirk the heavy lifting.
I sense there’s more going on than you simply being stubborn or oblivious or in denial. I wonder if you are playing an increasingly impossible role, desperately shoring up a facade of family functionality that is crumbling faster than you can repair it, try as you might.
I wonder if you are afraid.
If any of that rings true, it must be terrifying to contemplate letting the pretense go and facing the consequences. You may well face a far steeper challenge than your son.
At the risk of sounding like Winnie the Pooh, may I offer the suggestion that you are stronger and braver than you think?
Your boy isn’t happy like this.
I know how this strikes you. Who am I to make such a pronouncement? I see your boy for at the very most an hour a day. You’ve spent his whole life nurturing him, worrying about him, investing in him in every way imaginable.
But unless your son is a dyed-in-the-wool sociopath, which I doubt — I’ve seen flashes of warmth and kindness in him, have even seen him being helpful to other kids on occasion — there is no way his bullying jives with him being a happy camper. No kid who mistreats others does so unless they’re unhappy or afraid or bewildered or depressed or feeling hopeless, or some combination thereof.
Nobody of any age who needs to make others feel bad, feels good, at least not enough of the time. That was just as true of my son when he was thirteen as it is of yours right now.
My boy’s future was at stake, as well as the impact he would have on those who would weave into his life. So together he and his dad and I did a lot of hard things. It took a long time. It was often painful. But it was so, so worth it.
I can’t guarantee that your son will turn out to be a caring, responsible adult and a good citizen, no matter what you do. Who knows at what point any of us has “turned out” anyway? The truth is, it’s mostly up to him.
But I would bet the rent that if you don’t find the courage to face what’s in front of you, he’s not going to get any happier, and his list of victims will grow.
It’s not fair that it’s up to you to take this on. But that’s the way it is. I wish you’d let us help.