A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

You're Never Too Young to Start Being Bullied

How do you protect a young child from peers' cruelty?

Yesterday, for the second time in as many months, my third-grade daughter was called a lesbian by two boys she knows.

My first response was calm, though it belied the emotions that surged through me: I asked how she felt when they said that to her. "I didn't feel good," she said. "I thought they were being mean." The first time this happened, last month, she was more cavalier about it, telling the boy who said it maybe she was, but who cared? But this second incident had rattled her, perhaps because it was two boys together who'd cooked up the name-calling this time: it felt more like getting ganged up on. And it was the second time she'd been called a lesbian, so the boys had clearly discussed it as a group.

We live in a very liberal neighborhood of a generally liberal city; there is a generous representation of gay families at my children's school; and one of the head administrators there is openly gay. And these are third graders from affluent, seemingly stable homes. Am I naïve to be shocked? I will confess to being clueless about the ways of third-grade boys: I went to a girls' school from first through twelfth grades, I grew up with no brothers and few male friends until college, and I am the mother of daughters. Of course children have used homophobic language to taunt their peers forever, and I know kids are impulsive. I'm married to an inveterate teaser, and I'm grateful my girls will grow up understanding how teasing is sometimes used to communicate. I also firmly believe you can change your own actions and thoughts far more effectively than you can change others'. My head (well, part of it) tells me to focus on my child: reassure her, teach her how to respond, help her develop a thick skin.

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Yet I can't deny this behavior wounds my heart profoundly. First, this was a mean-spirited attack: using what they perceived as derogatory language, these three boys verbally assaulted my child. You can call it teasing or you can call it bullying--either way, they were trying to make her feel bad, and using homophobic language to boot. Second, let's say they didn't mean "lesbian" in a derogatory fashion, merely a descriptive one (and I'm really giving them the benefit of the doubt in this potential scenario), it's still completely inappropriate for my daughter's classmates to be commenting upon her (utterly nascent) sexuality. As a friend of mine pointed out, an eight-year-old who finds it funny to call other kids lesbian or gay may well become the college kid who thinks it's humorous to post secretly recorded videos of his freshman roommate having sex with another man. And finally, what if my daughter is gay--something I don't think has even begun to cross her mind (though now maybe it will)--is this the beginning of a lifetime's worth of being teased and singled out? That thought alone is enough to bring tears to my eyes, because if not for her, there's surely another child somewhere out there for whom this is true.

My reactions are also colored by an experience I had at her exact age, which is seared into my memory: my younger sister and I were walking along the beach, hand-in-hand, when a boy our age walked past and said sneeringly, "Are you lezzies?" It takes less than a split second for that memory to burn afresh. I felt scared, I felt ashamed, I felt powerless. I didn't know what to say to him, and I definitely didn't know what to say to my little sister, who had no idea what he meant and kept asking me to explain. I was a young child, but I knew he was trying to hurt us by injecting sexuality into a situation where it didn't belong. 

Ours is a relatively small school, in a progressive neighborhood, with a self-described emphasis on character, kindness and tolerance. I am not naïve enough to believe we live in a post-discrimination world, but I am still unpleasantly surprised that this kind of behavior should rear its ugly head here, and now. I owe it to my child to make sure that she is protected from similarly hateful language and experiences--even if I haven't yet quite figured out how.

Though it may seem a non-sequitur, I found special comfort in cooking this week:

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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