Perplexed, I stared at my five-year-old son.
He was sitting at our dining-room table eating breakfast and trying too hard not to make eye contact. It was, however, too cold outside to drop the issue, so I insisted.
"You need to wear your green coat. It's cold outside and that thin yellow one is for springtime, not fall. Your green coat will keep you warm." This seemed simple enough. Explanation given, understanding reached, move on.
But that's not how it was going to work. "No," he said, without looking at me.
He didn't shout, but his response had a tone that made me take notice. This was out of character for my usually fun-loving, happy kid.
"Why? What's going on with this coat?"
"I just don't want to wear it," he said, still staring at a half-full bowl of milk.
Determined to get to the bottom of this, my "mother voice" kicked into high gear.
"Listen Mister, you either tell me what's going on with that coat, or I'm stuffing you into it and sending you off to school."
There, that should make sense to a kindergartner. The grown-up in me knew this was an impossible task, but he still believes everything I say is real and could actually happen.
"There's a boy in my class," he said, still concentrating on stirring his cereal and not looking up. "He makes fun of me and tells me the coat looks stupid. Sometimes he follows me around and tells me that I look funny, so I just don't want to wear the coat, okay?" Our eyes met, and I could see the sincerity in his words. My heart sank.
He was being bullied. In kindergarten.
I was brought back to reality by a thwack on my leg from his two-year-old sister, bringing me a hairbrush and insisting on a "do" before we had to leave for school, daycare and work, respectively.
I had enough time to wake my husband, who was still sleeping (living the flexible life of a PhD student), to fill him in about the bully and Jackson not wanting to wear his green coat. I was met with grunts and murmurs of "That's ridiculous!" and "You can't let him give in, or the bullying will never stop," and, my personal favourite, "We need to toughen him up!"
It was too dark in our bedroom for him to see me roll my eyes, but for emphasis I shouted that we had to leave, and he was more than welcome to come downstairs and parent our son how he thought he needed to be parented. He rolled over and readjusted his pillow.
I left in a huff.
The children dropped off, I sat at work stirring my coffee with my mind on my son. Tall for his age, he has always had a charismatic personality. Heartfelt, caring and sensitive, he loves people and wants to talk to everyone.
But now he has a bully.
How do you harden a child? How do you tell him to fight back with words when he doesn't understand comebacks and put-downs? Is it really my job as his parent to teach him to insult someone who is picking on him?
When I asked him how he responded to the bully, he said he went and told the teacher. Exactly what we have taught him to do, but now it seemed an insufficient response.
I returned home from work to find my husband typing away. We had both had the day to think but I didn't feel any further ahead in what should be automatic parenting wisdom.
Jeff turned from his computer to me. "Look," he said, "he doesn't need to be harder - I didn't mean that - but I have been thinking about this situation."
We talked for an hour about parenting, bullies and how to give our son the tools to help him with this kid and also in life.
Initially, we brainstormed ideas to give Jack on dealing with someone who was picking on him, but that evolved into a realization that we can't protect him from life. We decided to chat with him about the fact that regardless of what you wear, if someone is going to pick on you, they will. You can't control the bullies, only your reaction to them.
He is 5. In my mind, he is small. He believes in the tooth fairy (although he has yet to lose a tooth). His toy cars are propelled by the sounds of "zooooom" as they race on the imaginary tracks running through the air and up the walls of his bedroom. He sleeps with a stuffed dog and helps me wash his little sister's hair in the bath.
And he's afraid. He's afraid of a boy at his school who has done the thing we, as parents, have protected him from until now.
He has been told that he is stupid and that he looks funny.
I realize with this experience that our little guy has a long journey ahead of him. That, although he is a good, happy, loving person, there are those who are not. They will be there at every point in his life. They will throw snowballs at him during recess, trip him on the school bus, spread rumours about him and challenge him to a fight after school. All I can do is remind him that there will always be more people pulling for you than pulling you down.
Life experience or, as it was once called, "the school of hard knocks" will be the biggest source of understanding and growth for my son. I acknowledge this painful fact as I watch him climb into our car on a chilly autumn day stuffed into a sweater, with his thin yellow spring coat on top.
Danielle Ruhl lives in Ottawa.