I was happily sitting at my computer this morning, composing a blog post about the start of school tomorrow and ally behaviors, when I heard shrieks coming from upstairs. Our children are only 16 months apart at age 5 and 6, and they tend to know exactly how to push each other’s buttons. When we hear screaming from one of them, we typically aren’t jumping up out of our seat to find out who told the other one he/she stinks. Usually the tears are just as manipulative as the initial aggression. Once the other is disciplined, the tears stop almost immediately: “You made me cry, and I made you get in trouble. Success.”
After a minute or two, I went upstairs to find out what was going on. My daughter was lying face down on her bed sobbing, and my son was hiding in the corner of his room behind the end of his bed. I decided to start with my son.
“Why is your sister crying?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, let’s go ask her.”
As I pulled him into her room, he protested: “I said sorry already!” Once we got to her room, he started tearing up. He knew he had done something bad, and he was about to get caught.
My daughter was still sobbing, and my son was on his way to her level of distress. Nobody was talking; they probably couldn’t through the tears.
“Go to your room,” I told me son. This sent him over the edge, and he screamed as he ran to his room, slammed the door, and threw himself on the floor to cry into his rug.
I got my daughter to calm down enough to understand what she was saying: “He said I have stinky black ears.” She barely could get it out before collapsing into uncontrollable bawling. This may seem humorous to some, but to a father of a black daughter, this is serious business. I stormed into my son’s room.
“Did you say what she said you said?”
Through racking sobs: “No.”
“If you said what I she said you said, that is really horrible. You never make fun of the way someone looks just to hurt their feelings. That makes you a very bad person.” Okay, I’m sure that last little bit isn’t going to get me nominated for dad of the year or anything, but our son is smart. Super smart. He’s been flirting with this type of behavior with his sister for the past year, experimenting with what he can say that will really hurt her. He’s even done with me fairly often, and he tried it once on his teachers at preschool last year. Yes, I was angry, and I needed him to understand the gravity of using something like skin color to make someone feel bad.
“I guess I’m just a bad person,” he cried, throwing himself on the floor again.
“I thought you didn’t say it?” (Yes, I’m kind of a jerk sometimes.)
“Then why are you a bad person?”
“Because I am.”
I have yet to learn logic doesn’t work on a five-year-old.
“I think even if you said it, you can be a better person if you learn from it. We all make mistakes, and I need you to know that making someone feel bad because of the way they look is one of the worst things you can do. You know that now, and I need you to never do it again.”
The crying was slowly subsiding.
“Look at your skin. Someone could say you had stinky brown ears. How would that make you feel?”
“Right. So I need you to think about all of this while I go talk to your sister.”
Round one was over. Now for the next level.
“Honey, why did what he said upset you so much?”
“Because it was mean.”
“I know, but he says mean things all the time, and you don’t usually get this upset.”
This brought on a new level of hysterics, but through her heaving, I think I could make out the following: “Because he was saying that my skin is bad.”
Oh man. How does she know this at six years old? And worse yet, how does my five year old son know that this is the best way to hurt her? And why doesn’t my husband’s school district get the day off for Rosh Hashanah like us so that I’m not dealing with this on my own?
“You know your brother is only five. He doesn’t understand anything about what he says except that it will make you sad. You’re going to run into people who will say things like that to you a lot in your life, and you need to learn to accept that what they’re saying isn’t true. Someone is probably going to say something like that to you at school, and you should just tell them that it’s not true, and make sure you tell an adult and Daddy and Poppy.”
“But you won’t be there.”
“I know, but you can always tell us later, and we’ll always make sure you feel safe.” We took a brief pause so I could just hold her, and then: “What could you have said when he said you have stinky black ears?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, first, let’s see if they’re stinky.” I bent over to get a whiff. She smiled just a little bit. “Nope. They don’t smell like flowers right now because you need a bath, but I wouldn’t say they’re stinky. And what about black. Are they black?”
“Okay, so how about saying, ‘They don’t stink, and yes they’re black and they’re beautiful.'” The smile was still there, but I could tell she still wasn’t sure.
“Who do we know who has beautiful black ears?”
And she started listing the people in her life that have beautiful black ears: our former nanny, her first grade teacher, a good friend I work with, the son of a lesbian couple we love…and of course Audra McDonald. I had finally calmed her down; at least that was a small success.
“I talked to your brother, and he’s thinking in his room. I’m going to go finish some stuff up downstairs, and then we’ll start our day, okay?”
I came downstairs to write this post while it was still fresh in my mind, and also to give myself some time away from the emotional voltage of the situation. I didn’t want to get more mad at my son, and I thought I had done what I could for my daughter. Just a few moments ago as I was writing here, I started hearing some whispering upstairs. My daughter was calling Amir into her room. Moments later, I heard the music blaring from her room, and right now I can hear the two of them dancing together and laughing. And now I’m the one who is crying.