Friday, December 20, 2013

So What, Who Cares? Partying Teenagers, and Bullying Parents

Dear Erin,

Our favorite babysitter lives across the street.  She is smart and reliable and the kids love her.  However, last weekend she had a huge party while her parents were out of town.  There was loud music and what looked like drunken teenagers running amok in her yard.  The cops even arrived in the wee hours to break up the party.  I don't think her parents even know any of this happened and I'm wondering if I should tell them.  I love this girl but I'm not sure how I feel about her sitting for our kids anymore.  But sitters are so hard to come by these days!


Dear Conflicted:

When my kids were little, I put them to bed early.  My husband worked late at The Firm, almost every night, and I needed those nighttime hours to comb the dried avocado out of my eyebrows.  One night, right around bedtime, there commenced a loud banging on our ceiling.  It was rhythmic and constant.  It continued, off and on, for several hours.  The next evening, it happened again.

Because I lived in fear of the kids waking up – and because my husband really didn’t want to deal with an even crabbier version of me – he said he’d talk to our upstairs neighbors.  In his chat with the dad the next day, he discovered that their teenage son had been alone for a few days in their apartment, and had been dribbling his basketball all night in his bedroom.  Of course he was.  He was fourteen.  What prefrontal cortex?    

The dribbling stopped.  But the dad, who was kind of a tough guy, didn’t stop there.  First, he made young Larry Bird apologize to us, in person.  Then, he delivered the loudest and most abusive father-to-son tirade we’d ever heard through a ceiling.  And we realized we'd inadvertently made the kid’s life that much more miserable. 

Here’s my point.  If you were close personal friends with your neighbors, then I would say:  Tell them.  If you had a prior understanding with them about keeping an eye on their teen’s behavior -- which many parents of teenagers wisely and cooperatively have – then I would shout: Yes!   Not only can you tell them, but you should.  You had a prearranged expectation to report problems.  As your friends or trusted neighbors, your silence would be tantamount to betrayal. 

But as we discovered with the tough guy, random neighbors can respond… randomly.  You may not know enough about your sitter's family rules or communication style to know if the parents would feel embarrassed by your input, or get angry, or be overwhelmed.  If the cops came, other neighbors were annoyed.  We all want to hear things about our kids.  But for the most part, we want to hear those things from people we feel comfortable with, and trust.   Critical input, from a random neighbor, can come across as nosy meddling.  

If you observed any dangerous or seriously harmful behavior, I’d feel differently.  In that case, you could do what other people I know have done in similar situations.  Tell a close friend of your neighbor, and ask them to pass it on.  Likewise, if the girl becomes unreliable or irresponsible while babysitting, then her behavior becomes your own problem.  But otherwise, I wouldn’t hold her extracurricular stupidity against her.  Teenagers do stupid things.  They all do.  Speaking as someone who once deceptively dressed up -- in the work clothes of my friend’s mother -- so I could buy us a case of beer, your babysitter will probably turn out fine.   

Dear Erin:

I am writing for advice, guidance or just more insight. I am a mother (I think I'm a pretty good one, too.) My children, two boys ages almost 10 and almost 8. They are my heart, the apple of my eye and I love them.  Here's my question and/or dilemma.  My almost 10 year old has become alienated by his closest friends in school.  Last school year, there was an incident of bullying against one of my almost 10 year old's closest friends, which my almost 10 year old and my almost 8 year old witnessed and reported to the teacher and school. I presumed the parties involved were scolded and taught the Golden Rule.  

Eventually, I learned there was no action on the part of the school. The classmate of my almost 10 year old who was bullied left the school.  The teacher and the school never addressed the incident nor used it as an opportunity for teaching (DUH!) or for helping students talk about the ramifications of bullying. I did speak to the teacher and principal and asked how they could allow this to fall apart. And with no response that satisfied me, I went over their heads. I went to the State and filed a complaint against the school.

Since that year, my almost 10 year old has not been called by these other closest friends for play dates, sleepovers and random almost 10 year old games. Amazingly, I have noticed many of the parents no longer look ME in the eye, either. I know my beauty blinds most, but this is ridiculous. I strut the school hall like the Hall Monitors of old, but, me?  Not looking at me? Could this be a trickle down of hate?  Have the cliques not left highschool? Could the bullies be the parents? Am I bringing my almost 10 year old and almost 8 year old to a cult and not an actual school?

And here I am, Dear Erin, submitting this dilemma to you. What's a mom to do? Leave the school? Look away from the non-stares? Force the playdates? Bake cookies laced with THC for the bake sale so we all just get along? I eagerly await your wise wisdom.


Mother Bear

Dear Mother Bear:

Problems with kids and their schoolmates can be so difficult, even without a bullying incident.  I’m sorry you've had to deal with this.  Still, as much as I love the idea of you getting everyone stoned --  thus bringing new meaning to the term, bake sale – there may be a more straightforward option.  Because while I understand your feelings, I’m not yet convinced that everyone at Bully Town Elementary School actually hates you.  

Consider this anecdote.  When I was in grad school, I rented a sweet, two-bedroom apartment from a professor in my department.  One night, I learned that an acquaintance of mine needed a new apartment because, in classic New York style, her roommate had started dealing drugs.  So I invited her to move in. To make this happen, I had to tell the professor we were Irish cousins.  But I’ll save that sordid tale of ethnic deception for another time.

As it turned out, we were very compatible roommates.  We developed this ritual where we’d get up in the morning, take our showers, then meet at the breakfast table for coffee and smokes.  I liked our time together.  But one thing -- other than the healthy breakfast of nicotine and caffeine – put me on edge.  After I spoke, quite frequently, she would pause for an exceptionally long time.  She often answered me with a short question, or a request for clarification.  Sometimes she didn’t say much at all.  Because I’m a naturally paranoid and neurotic person, I read these pauses as judgmental.  I interpreted her lack of speedy response as disgust, or boredom.  I concluded that she was rendered speechless by my idiocy.  I became convinced that she didn’t really like me. 

Over the years, we remained friends.  At some point, as we got closer, I asked her if she did – in fact -- disapprove of me sometimes.   And here’s what she basically told me: “Erin, I’m always interested in what you say.  But if it’s something serious or complicated, I want to really think about it, and give your feelings the consideration they deserve.  I listen deeply, because I care about you.”   

Here’s why this story matters: This woman ended up being one of my closest friends in the world.   She took notes at my PhD defense. She visited me in Rhode Island, when I got my first job, even though she was dealing with other personal stuff.  She came to the hospital each time I had a baby.  She threw me a baby shower, and attended most of my kids’ birthday parties, with a beautiful gift in hand.  When I got my doctorate, she tried to come to that party, too.  But it was a windy night, and a bowling alley awning fell on her head.  So she went to the hospital instead.   Likewise, after the farewell party she threw me, she went out to walk her dog, fell down, and broke her face.   And yet the next year, she risked her life again, and came to our new home in Wisconsin for my 40th birthday.

I tell you this to remind you how easy it is to misinterpret other people’s actions.  How easy it is to imagine that someone’s furtive glance is about us – or directed at us -- when it isn’t.   How easy it is to take weird behaviors personally, when it's not about us, like at all.  I don’t have the full story, perhaps.  Maybe you’ve tried to approach these parents, and have been flatly rejected.  Maybe your son has, even more painfully, experienced that. But if you haven’t done these things – and you are just assuming they disapprove, while this quiet estrangement has occurred – then I think you owe it to yourselves to try to reconnect with them.   If you want their friendship, and he wants the kids’ friendship, why not call one of them, and ask them over?   Why not write an email to one of these moms and – if their cult allows it – ask them for coffee? 

There’s no risk here, other than the emotional one.  You may discover that they were avoiding you because they didn’t know what to say.  Or that they were intimidated, because they are wimps, while you are the Mother Bear who roared at the school.   Or that they thought you were angry with them.   Or -- worst case scenario-- you may find out that they do hate you for being a whistleblower.  You’ll invite them over and they’ll snub you directly, to your face.  It will sting.  For a few days.  Or a while.  But then, Mommy Grizzly, at least your rejection won’t be speculative anymore.  And you can move on, secure in the knowledge that these are not the right people for you. And that your children should find better friends.

Is that emotional risk worth it?  Personally, I think it is.  You know why?  Because in taking it, you will not only have taught your son that it’s important to stand up to bullies.  You will also have taught him that friends sometimes misunderstand each other, and even feel disliked.  But that one day, they may still go out and break their face, just to throw you a party.  

Good luck.  I hope you'll let me know, maybe in an anonymous comment, how it turns out.  

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