Aly Windsor wonders when to be the ‘fixer’ and when to leave that to her son.
Last weekend, I took my 4-year-old son out to dinner and a theater show for some special one-on-one time. When we arrived at the restaurant, I mentioned to the hostess, a woman in her 40s, that we were going to a play nearby. She sat us at the bar where we’d be served quicker and my son thought this was super cool.
After we ordered our food, the hostess walked over, ruffled his hair, and asked if he was excited about the show. My son froze. He refused to turn his head in her direction or even mine. She kept her hand on his head and asked if he was shy. He was clearly uncomfortable with what she was doing but I froze, too. I wanted to say something to get her to back off but didn’t want to offend her. All I could muster was a too-friendly “No, he’s not shy. He’s just focused on other things.” She went on to say she had three daughters and tugged at his shirt in another effort to get him to engage with her. Eventually she gave up and walked away.
On the drive home that night, I replayed the moment in my mind and tried to imagine what I should have done. I wanted her to stop but couldn’t think of a nice way to say it. Why was I more concerned about offending this stranger than I was over protecting my son? Surely if she had been violent, I would have taken her out. But her non-consensual touching clearly scared him and was out of line. My partner and I have talked with him about not allowing strangers to touch his private parts but what about the rest of his body? What would I do if a stranger started touching my head and tugging on me? Would I have reacted the same way if the genders were reversed, and a strange man was touching my daughter? I also made excuses for her though. She didn’t seem like a native speaker. Maybe it was just a cultural thing. She seemed to mean well.
But I still felt like I failed to respond appropriately when he felt threatened. What else was I failing to respond to? I mentally shuffled through other times he’d shut down or froze up over the last few weeks and felt a growing unease.
Last year, my son started preschool happily. He liked his teachers and he adored his new friends. During my first parent-teacher conference, I learned that he was well-loved by his classmates and considered a “leader” among them. I nearly burst into tears. My social net worth rose and fell at random when I was in grade school but it was more often on the low side. I wasn’t proud so much as I was happy for him. I hoped this meant he wouldn’t struggle socially like I did.
When he moved up to the next level this year I assumed we’d be in for more of the same with him. But things changed. His three closest friends, all boys, were put in a different class. He knows the girls from last year but they often refuse to play with him. Two other boys in his class are quiet, contemplative types who keep to themselves. The only other two boys are more his speed, temperament-wise, but they’re already best friends and have been slow to warm up to him. He also says his new teachers talk in mean voices. Last year he ran and nearly tackled me in a hug when I’d pick him up. This year he looks sullen and says hi, no hugs.
When he told me that no one plays with him, my first mama-bear impulse was to have him switched to the other class so he could once again be among his people. But then I thought, no, he has to learn how to cope with changes like this. If I “fix” this for him this year, it won’t help him next year when he goes to kindergarten at a completely new school where he may know no one.
But did I make the right choice? Surely an unhappy year of preschool won’t scar him for life, right? Or maybe it could. What if this is the beginning of him learning to dislike school? His teachers seem nice but how do I really know what goes on when parents aren’t around? If I try to talk to them about his feelings, would that make it worse for him? I thought ahead with some terror over the realization that even if these teachers aren’t mean, there will be others that are. Of course there will. I remember the ones I had vividly. He just has to get through it — like I did. But what kind of bullshit is that? Why aren’t grade school teachers reviewed by their students the way college professors are? Why shouldn’t we get to choose our kids’ teachers the way college students do?
Then there was the ache I felt when I imagined him left alone by his parents in an unfriendly space for four half-days out of every week.
That ache turned to fear when I next wondered: Is this where he begins to feel that his parents don’t take his concerns seriously — at least not enough to help him in a meaningful way? Is this where his ability or desire to express himself falls off a cliff?
I fully admit to being someone given to panic. I sometimes joke about not knowing where the line is between my mother’s intuition and my anxiety disorder. But seriously. Where is it? Up until now, I’ve felt pretty confident about when it’s time to step in to help my son and I’ve been able to do it with relative ease — even in difficult medical situations. But as he becomes more autonomous, these decisions feel more complicated.
I paused this mental wheel-spinout long enough to do one thing I knew I needed to do.
“Did that woman at dinner make you feel uncomfortable?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t stop her. I could tell you didn’t like what she was doing but I was so surprised by it that I didn’t know what to do.”
“That’s okay, mom.”
“Well, if there’s a next time, I’ll speak up. I hope you know that you can also use your voice, too, to tell people to stop if what they’re doing makes you feel bad.”
He didn’t respond to that last part, probably because that’s a complex concept when you’re four.