I’d begun a fledgling friendship here in our new town. Coffee dates, common interests, laughter, possibility. We were planning a family cook-out together, a pool party.
And a short while back, my 15-year-old came home and said my new friend, while driving him home, had called his 17-year-old brother an asshole and a douche. “It was kind of said in jest,” Gus explained. “She laughed when she said it, but I don’t think she was really kidding. I kind of think she meant it.”
I was stunned. Seriously taken aback. I asked Gus to repeat the story over and over, certain that he’d misunderstood, convinced that the story was being misrepresented. He is, after all, a 15-year-old boy, and I’d only heard his interpretation of the story.
Gus reiterated: “She said we all needed to come over for dinner soon but that Sam wasn’t invited because he’s an asshole. She said he’d been a real douche lately.”
And then I panicked. What had Sam done? Was he disrespectful to my friend? To her husband? I mean, I love my kid and he’s generally a trustworthy, polite, fun-loving teenager, but as Chris always said about the high schoolers he was responsible for, given the opportunity, good kids can make bad decisions.
And none of us are above hurting others.
Of course Sam can be an asshole. I can be an asshole, too. So can Chris (although he might disagree). So can the rest of our kids. So can every single human being on this planet. Chris and I are the first ones to call Sam out when his behavior dips into assholeness (as it often does in the early morning hours). But that doesn’t mean Sam is an asshole.
As a worst case scenario girl, I was convinced, though, that my boy was at fault, and I was ready to make him right his wrong, to repair what he might have broken.
But as the story unfolded, this is what I discovered from both sides… nothing happened. Sam simply wasn’t paying enough attention to my friend’s daughter. According to my friend, Sam used to hang out with her daughter, but he doesn’t anymore. Sam’s friends talk to her daughter, but he remains silent. No harsh words had been spoken, no altercations had occurred, no throw-downs had taken place in the junior locker bay.
I asked Sam why he and this girl weren’t friends and he shrugged and said, “Because she creates a lot of drama. I don’t want to be a part of it.”
That was it. That was his grievous crime.
I’m never, ever okay with my kids being mean to other kids (or any other humans or animals, for that matter). I’m not a fan or cliques or exclusivity or “you’re invited, you’re not.” But I’m totally on board with my kids deciding who they want to interact with on a daily basis. I’ve been involved in enough unhealthy relationships to understand that choosing who gets to be an integral part of your life is a sacred step, not one to be taken lightly. And I also trust my kids enough to be able to make those decisions, to have the skills to determine who is good for them… and who is not. It’s part of growing up, part of navigating relationships, part of learning how to advocate for yourself.
Could Sam have handled the situation better? Maybe. I don’t know because I wasn’t there. It was Sam’s situation to handle, not mine. My job was to walk him through the kindness factor again, to make sure he wasn’t being mean or nasty or dismissive, to remind him that common courtesies (such as a hello or a goodbye or a thank you) should always be part of his repertoire, to reiterate that he should treat others — always — as he wants to be treated.
After all was said and done, my friend apologized for the name-calling. She knew she spoke in haste and without thought and expressed her remorse. I appreciated her apology, and I accepted her apology. Heaven knows I’ve often wished I could shove reckless words back into my mouth… numerous times.
But what was blossoming between us is no longer. Not because I am angry or unforgiving, but because I am unwilling to intimately open my life to her knowing how she feels about my son, understanding how easily he was thrown under the bus in the name of defending her own. And it makes me sad, this knowledge. She’s not a bad human being, and I had looked forward to what might have been. But what’s vital to me in any friendship is that I feel safe and loved, that I feel my family is safe and loved. Of course conflict occurs in any relationship. It’s how we choose to navigate that space that matters. This did not, in any way, from any angle, feel safe. It felt like a driver’s side T-bone at 40 miles an hour when your eyes are focused squarely on the road ahead. I’m not ready to get back in that car.
Here’s what I learned from the whole scenario… it’s never okay for an adult to stick a hurtful, derogatory, demeaning label on a kid. Never. Especially when it’s done in front of other kids. Especially when one of those other kids is his younger brother. And although he’s tall and his voice is deep and his armpits are hairy, Sam is still a kid. What was said about him can’t be unsaid. What he heard about himself and his character is part of him now.
“It’s okay, Mom,” he’s since said to me. “I don’t care what she said. It’s no big deal.”
But it is a big deal.
What happened made me think about instances when I’ve said to Chris, “That kid is a jerk,” or “I don’t like that little shit,” or “Get that maniac child out of my house NOW!” And I’ve said those things many times over the course of my 18 years of parenting. But it’s not okay. (To clarify, it’s okay to remove a maniac child from your home, but it’s not okay to call him names in the process.) The kid in question might have been a shit to my kid, but that doesn’t mean he’s A Shit. Labeling someone that way changes how we see them, how we view their possibilities. And if they hear us say it, it changes how they see themselves.
We don’t get to tear other kids down to make our own kids feel better.
We don’t get to tear other humans down to make ourselves feel better.
Our choices, instead, exist here:
1. Communicate. Be honest, open, authentic. Resolve the situation… or not. But talk to someone, not about someone.
2. End the relationship. It’s okay to say, “This is not what I want in my life.” Boundaries are healthy; vindictiveness is not.
3. Take a deep breath. Step into someone else’s shoes. Grab a different lens. Look inside. Perhaps the problem is not external.
Words matter. Whether we’re using them to describe ourselves, our friends, our enemies, our loved ones — they stick. Choose wisely. Pick the ones with the soft edges, the ones that don’t leave scars.
Making someone else feel smaller will never, in the end, make you bigger.