In Which I Realize Kids are Mean (and So Am I)

I know this isn’t some big revelation (and it’s a topic I’ve covered before on the blog), but it’s a concept that can sometimes sneak out and bite you when you’re not expecting it. Case in point? I was watching Rain Man last night with Denisa. We were enjoying the film, when all of a sudden I’m hit with a high school memory: me and some of my friends making fun of a kid who must have fallen somewhere on the autism spectrum. He was from middle school, as I recall, and he was taking advanced math classes at high school. Didn’t talk much, but he would rock back and forth in his chair during class at times, but mostly during breaks.

And we sat there smugly making fun of the kid.

Not to his face–I wasn’t that open with my meanness. But behind his back? Sure thing. And I didn’t think anything of it until–almost 20 years later–I remember we used to call the kid Rain Man when he couldn’t hear us.

Here’s the thing: yes, it was a mean, foolish thing to do to another kid. But I still think I was a pretty nice guy, as far as high school kids go. Maybe I’m going easy on myself there, I don’t know. But if I was willing and eager to do something mean like that, I wonder just how mean people can get. And I wonder how much it’s still happening today.

My kids have had so much more anti-bullying stuff in school than I ever got. There are whole assemblies on the topic, year after year. I applaud the sentiment, but I just can’t help thinking that it doesn’t actually work in practice. (I hope I’m wrong.)


(Note: speaking from my own experience here.) Because kids ignore adults. It’s nothing personal–it’s just a human tendency that your own personal experience trumps the advice of other people. TRC will tell me something one of the kids said at school. Something I know for a fact is wrong. I tell him it’s wrong. He trusts me normally, but I can see the doubt in his eyes. When it comes to what some kid at school is saying–a peer–and what his dad is telling him . . . It could go either way.

And kids like to solve their own problems. Again–this makes perfect sense. At no point in my life have I ever thought of myself as immature or foolish. I always thought I was cool, calm, and collected. Of course, there’s a corollary to that: at no point in my life have I ever not looked back at the me from a few years ago and thought, “Pffft. What an immature, foolish boy I was.”

There’s a problem there. I was immature, and I was too immature to realize it. (Ask me in five years how immature I am today. I’m pretty confident I’ll give the same answer.)

So because kids are like me–cool and confident in their own abilities–and they automatically distrust adults, I’m not sure all the assemblies in the world can counteract bullying. (I wish I were wrong.)

And that makes sense in a way, because you know what? Adults are mean. We bully. We ostracize. We ignore. Racism? Sexism? Elitism? That’s just bullying that grew up.

Sheesh. This post is becoming depressing. Mustn’t have that.

All I really wanted to say was a simple observation: the realization that

  1. I was not as nice of a kid as I thought I was.
  2. Kids in general can be casually cruel and think nothing of it.

Which scares me, and makes me hope that:

  1. My kids can be better kids than I was.
  2. My kids can rise above the cruelty, both when it’s inflicted on them, and when they’re tempted to inflict it on others.

Now to figure out how to actually make that happen. Ironically, some of the answers to that can be found in Rain Man itself. Tom Cruise starts as a callous jerk who couldn’t care less about anyone other than himself, but by the end of the movie, he’s changed. He cares. He gets it. What did it take? Getting outside himself. Being forced to help other people. Seeing firsthand how hard life can be for others.

There’s some truth in that. The only trick is knowing how to apply it. Suggestions?

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