“I’m a Good Mean Detector”
Child unfazed by popcorn thief
Laurea and I have been talking about middle school lately, and the varied injustices that children between the ages of eleven and fourteen mete out to each other in service of their own developing egos. Most of those conversations are about our own experiences navigating our early teens—about how I would run from class to class to avoid being noticed by the bullies, and about how Laurea herself ventured in and out of mean girl territory. As we reminisce, though, we are both peering off into the distance at Kina’s future experience of adolescent cruelty.
We tend to see the future in the exchanges Kina has with other kids on the playground, reading between the lines as they play games, cut in front of one another on the slide, and variously accept and rebuff each others’ advances. I probably read too much into the benign emotional tools that four-year-old children are learning to use, but it’s because I know how tools can be misused once we’ve mastered them. I tell myself that I can see the teenagers in this kids: the introverts and extroverts, the jocks, the cool girls, the quiet schemers, the tough defenders. None of this, of course, holds any water at all, because these children have the prefrontal cortices of puppies. There is no destiny encoded in the kid who won’t share her soccer ball; that is how kids and soccer balls work.
Yesterday, Kina encountered a mean little kid on the playground. Kina was dressed as Elsa (surprise), and this small child told her, “I hate your dress.” The two of them were playing with a mutual friend underneath a tree, and Kina stood there quietly. Laurea, who was standing nearby and heard this exchange, walked over and told the little girl that it was unkind to say things like that, but the kid barely registered the scolding. Kina seemed not to care, and the code of the playground is to refrain from lecturing others’ children in the absence of imminent physical harm, and so that was that. Later on, that exact same kid walked up to Kina while she was eating her popcorn and stuck her hand in the bag to take a fistful of her own. Kina scowled at her, told her she needed to ask, and pulled the bag away. The parents of this child, who were standing three feet away, offered their kid a snack but said nothing else. Reader, I had thoughts.
Let me say this very clearly: A four-year-old is a child, and I bear no ill will towards children. We all have recollections of cousins or young friends who turned out to be very different people from the brats they were at four, and I hold out the same hope for the popcorn thief. I have feelings about this kid’s parents, but that’s a topic for another day. In that moment, what I really cared about was how Kina reacted to her aggressor, and I watched her carefully to see how these insults landed. What I noticed is that Kina largely didn’t care, walking away as it suited her and finding some other cool little girl to chase bubbles with. No harm, no foul.
Over dinner, Laurea and I talked to Kina about dealing with people who are mean to her. We reinforced the idea that if somebody isn’t being nice, you can just walk away—that their cruelty is about their own pain, and you don’t need to be there for it. We told her that she can pick and choose her friends as she wants to, and that she should pick the friends who make her happy. She nodded thoughtfully, reinforced the sanctity of her popcorn, and went back to scarfing down her rice and peas.
I wish I could still be four, still naive to all the subtle jabs of sad people. When you’re this young, cruelty is transient and forgettable—and there’s always some other kid who wants to share her bubbles. I don’t have much of a recollection of the other kids I knew when I was four, but I don’t feel wronged by any of them. We were all just doing our best and learning from the big kids who looked like adults. Probably should have ignored them, in hindsight; we’d all feel better about our Elsa dresses now.