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Two simple words to help your “different” child

image credit: Southbank Centre

image credit: Southbank Centre

When my second grader told a classmate that she doesn’t believe in God, his response was immediate:

“I’m going to call the police!”

At the time, I educated her about our constitutional protections and assured her that the boy had no idea what he was talking about. But since then, there have been a lot of comments, incidents, and societal messages that have made her feel shamed and excluded in different ways. Actual comments from playmates include:

“Science proves that if you shoot a girl with a Nerf gun, it hurts more.”

“You can’t rake leaves – this is just for boys.”

“Only babies use training wheels.”

And ambient cultural ideas have definitely taken up residence in her head, from the feeling that we’re the only non-Christian family in the state, to the concept that being plump is both disabling and blameworthy.

I’ve struggled to equip my child to cope with these messages – to help her believe that they’re stupid, wrong, and should hold no power. But little kids are by nature impressionable and often unsure of themselves. Giving her the confidence to reject these ideas has been challenging.

But when the casual sexism from her male playmates got to be too much, I had a burst of inspiration.

“That’s bullying,” I said.

There’s a very strong culture against bullying in school now, with ongoing education designed to stop bullying. Every kid in our school knows “bullying” is unacceptable. The key is that they may not understand all the ways kids get bullied.

Using this powerful label to call out sexism proved to be incredibly effective. Suddenly my daughter’s eyes shined with certitude and indignation. Simultaneously, it gave her a tool to use in the moment – now when someone tells her girls can’t do something, she knows she can say, “That’s bullying!” She’s confident she has right on her side.

And this of course can be applied to discrimination she may face on the basis of religion, looks, or any other characteristic. Plus the beautiful thing is, she can use this concept as a self-check before making a comment to another child, and as a shield when other children get made fun of or excluded based on any difference they may have.

Maybe we can help our kids navigate this often-hostile world, and be an ally to others, just by teaching them that bullying isn’t confined to taking lunch money or excluding someone from a game.

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