December 13, 2019
By Ekta R. Garg
We’re in that time of year when people talk about goodwill. Goodwill toward the less fortunate; goodwill toward those who hold opinions in direct opposition to one’s own. Dozens of holiday movies through the years have offered audiences a wide of range of emotions when estranged family members show one another goodwill and reunite.
I suppose it’s going to sound a little strange, then, that this week I encouraged one of my children to hold back her goodwill.
On Monday morning, I looked Eleven straight in the eye and said, “If [that classmate] tries to talk to you, just walk away.”
“Just walk away?” she repeated, eyes widening a little.
“Yes,” I said. “If you have a disagreement with someone once or twice, then it makes sense to try to stay and work it out. But sometimes, when you’ve tried everything you can and it’s not working, you have permission to leave the situation.”
“I don’t want to be rude.”
“I’m not telling you to be rude,” I said. “I’m not giving you permission to be mean or act out against [that classmate]. Just walk away. Don’t let anyone have the power to force you to stay and listen to things you don’t want to.”
She seemed fascinated and challenged—and a little relieved—that I gave her that advice.
Here’s what led up to this.
The classmate in the conversation above has been with Eleven since kindergarten. In their first two years of school together, the kids were great pals. Eleven often cited this classmate as a “best friend.”
In second grade, this classmate’s personality began to change. Eleven started coming home with stories of how the classmate would say rude things or exclude Eleven from playing with others. S/he would ignore Eleven for a few days at a stretch and then suddenly want to be friends again.
I know my daughter isn’t perfect. She’s got a deep sense of compassion for her friends and is always trying to sort out problems for them. She also has a temper like quicksilver, and while we’ve worked actively with her to think before she reacts there are still days she barks first and asks questions later.
With this classmate, however, the teachers confirmed that almost every single time the child in question had no cause to treat Eleven the way s/he did. Eleven did all she could to extend goodwill to the classmate. The classmate accepted it on some days and rebuffed it with force on others.
The classmate’s behavior with other kids changed as well, but somehow s/he singled out Eleven. Eleven became frustrated, unable to process why her friend changed and wondered what she could do about it. We spent many hours through fourth and fifth grade coaching Eleven. At one point last year, we even told her to keep social interactions to a minimum. Cordial but not so involved.
The estrangement, the mixed messages, the passive aggressive actions continued. Eleven’s frustration mounted. She started to say she didn’t look forward to school anymore. My husband and I questioned Eleven repeatedly and in a variety of ways to make sure that altercations didn’t go beyond verbal ones, and they didn’t, but they upset Eleven anyway.
Thirteen and Eleven go to a small school, and the size has its perks. The camaraderie most of the students and teachers share reassures families, and it makes the school an attractive educational institution in town. Of course, the downside is that if you want to get away from someone it’s much harder.
At the end of summer, Eleven’s droopy demeanor toward the subject of school baffled us. When we asked her about it, she said she loved her school and couldn’t wait to see the teachers and start middle school. She just didn’t want to have to deal with this classmate anymore.
We reiterated the approach from last year: keep social interactions to a minimum. Don’t sit with the classmate at lunch. If s/he approaches Eleven at lunchtime or recess, find a reason to get out of the situation as fast as possible.
The classmate began to “lean on” Eleven at the start of the school year for “emotional support,” but the passive aggression continued. Some days the classmate was happy-go-lucky with Eleven, calling her by cute nicknames and trying to chit-chat. Other days s/he ordered Eleven to leave—as in, “I need to talk to N., go away.”
“What did you do?” I asked Eleven when this happened two weeks ago.
“What could I do?” Eleven said wearily. “I didn’t want to be rude, so I left.”
Then we discovered that the classmate and Eleven were exchanging emails. Eleven, it seemed, still held out hope that the classmate would go back to being his/her old self. The best friend she remembered from kindergarten and first grade. That’s why she began responding to the messages.
It didn’t work, of course. The emails left Eleven upset, confused, and emotionally drained. When we discovered them, we told Eleven to delete the classmate’s phone number, because the classmate was responding from a cell phone.
The function of technology in this case was a blessing. Because the classmate was using a phone instead of emailing in the traditional way, Eleven was required to download each message. After we told her to delete the emails and not to respond to the classmate ever again, she pointed out that in the event the classmate did send a message she wouldn’t have to read it. She could just delete it.
At the outset, Eleven was upset about our interference with the emailing. There were tears and loud words. Then, as we continued to talk and sort through why she was doing what she was, she started to see the sense of what we were telling her.
Enough is enough, I thought.
Eleven’s dad and I agreed that this time there wouldn’t be polite words. Eleven wouldn’t go to school and offer the classmate a congenial nod or listen semi-patiently to another story or outburst. This time there would be a marked difference.
We live in a world where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell one another what we think. Thanks to social media, everyone’s sense of entitlement on the right to their own opinions has increased a thousand-fold. So instead of coming right to the point and saying that a person’s words are hurtful—or that a child is doing badly in school, or that an employee is underperforming, or that a patient’s medical condition is largely due to the bad choices that person is making—instead of saying any of these things, we duck our heads and tolerate each other’s opinions.
The trouble with this kind of tolerance, I believe, is that it leads to another type tolerance: the kind where we implicitly give people permission to say and do whatever they want and not suffer consequences.
I don’t like confrontation any more than the next person. I want my children to grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted, kind people. But if they compromise on the first two traits, will they ever truly exhibit the third? If they’re willing to let people say whatever they want and tolerate it, when all the while their own hearts and minds are crumpling in pain, how do they develop true kindness? If people treat them horribly, how will Thirteen and Eleven maintain any hope and optimism for themselves or the people in their lives who love them and wish them well?
“Just walk away?” Eleven asked. “Don’t say anything?”
“Don’t say anything,” I told her. “When you’ve reached that limit, it’s really okay to just leave.”
I saw something small in her eyes then: the spark of her self-confidence flickered a little brighter. She straightened her back. That relief, as I said before, appeared in her face and demeanor.
I hope that by encouraging her to be kind to herself, she’ll be able to dole it out to the people who will receive it and return it in spades.