Monday, March 14, 2011

The Social Jungle

I watch Abby show her picture to her friend. "Do you like it?" she asks, and I see her heart hanging out there in the space between them--earnest, sincere, hopeful.

Her little friend, also just three, ignores her.

"Do you like it?" Abby asks again, this time a little louder, in case her friend didn't hear.

Her friend looks up from her own art, looks at Abby's picture, and puts her head back down, saying nothing.

This intentional act of ignoring leads Abby to press further: "Do you like it? Do you like my picture, [Friend]?"

And finally, the little girls speaks: "I don't like those colors."

My mama heart catches.

"What color do you like?" Abby asks, seemingly unfazed.

"Pink," her friend declares.

"I like pink, too," Abby says. It's true. She loves pink. But this picture of the world with the sun beams streaming out of it and the continents and a few people doesn't call for pink. Instead, Abby used blue and red and green and yellow, as most maps do.

Abby returns to coloring her picture with not-pink and says, "I'm going to give this to my mom." Her tone is as light as it was when she began the conversation. She puts the lid on her marker, folds the paper up a dozen times, and brings it to me. "This is for you, Mama," she says with eyes that sparkle with pride.

And I am so, so grateful.

It amazes me how early kids learn to be cruel. So quickly interactions among children can degrade into Lord of the Flies hierarchies and power plays and the use of others for one's own social advancement. They learn how much power they can wield through silence or imitation or feigned indifference. They test each other's reactions, intentionally provoking anger or frustration or tears because, whether they realize it or not, there is a thrill to having that kind of control over another.

But it's unfair, because children don't yet realize that these social games and relational rivalries are untrue. How many adults carry around the wounds of childhood, scars from the playground wars that left them feeling ugly or stupid or weak or different? Kids internalize the opinions of those around them, even if the messengers are only three or five or ten or fifteen and hardly qualified to make judgements about the value of another person.

I'm sure my children are not innocent of these interactions. I'm sure they try their hand at these cheap tricks. I've listened in the back seat as Ben has tried to tell Abby something, with increasing insistence, as she ignores him, reveling in the power of her silence to elicit such emotion from her big brother. Once we've experienced this treatment, once we've been on the receiving end of meanness, it is all too tempting to try it out, to propel oneself out of the role of powerless and into the role of powerful by turning on someone else. It is one of the great ironies of life that we tend to hurt others in the very ways we ourselves have been hurt.

In fact, many of the kids I see playing this way are younger siblings who have likely been treated this way by older brothers and sisters who learn to be mean from friends who've been mistreated by other parents and siblings and friends. There is a heritage of cruelty that trickles down to even the youngest and most innocent around us.

But still it pains me to watch kids, my kids especially, hand their hearts to little people around them who don't recognize the significance of the gift. Children trust freely, they believe easily, they offer themselves unreservedly--and this is at once the beauty and danger of youth.

My mama heart was so grateful Abby chose to give her picture to me, because I will always see the value in her creations because I will always see the value in her. By focusing on my response rather than her friend's, her little spirit remains buoyant, unfettered by the judgements of another. I want my children to listen to me and Josh above all other voices. The more they trust us and our word, the less vulnerable they will be to the falseness around them.

As they grow, they will be, indeed have already been, hurt by those around them. But I pray that my love, that our love as parents, helps to heal those wounds, to mitigate the damage, so they grow up with a true understanding of who they are, unmarred by others attempts to establish themselves at another's expense.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I love comments!

Blog Widget by LinkWithin