Kids can learn to be cruel or to be kind

The email came through at 1:12 p.m. Subject: “Today at Lunch.”

“An incident occurred at lunch today that I feel needs to be brought to your attention. The teacher on duty shared that your child was teasing another child at the lunch table, making jokes about this child’s mother. The child was visibly offended, but the teasing continued. Fortunately, the duty teacher saw what was happening and addressed the behavior. I have discussed this incident with your child and feel as though there needs to be a consequence for the behavior. I plan to have your child stay in during snack recess tomorrow and write an apology letter to the child.”

“Your child.” “Teasing.” “Visibly offended.”

Your. Child.

I stood frozen over my computer, merciless knots tying themselves around my stomach. I read it again and again. They can’t mean my son. My sweet, kind, shy 9-year-old. He’s not a…(gulp) bully. They cannot mean him.

Can they?

Turns out yes, they did. He, along with a group of three other boys, spent part of lunchtime making fun of another student’s mom.

What to do? I pace. Oh my god. What do I do?

I write to his teacher: “I am horrified to receive this and I am deeply sorry his behavior was such. Please tell him I will pick him up immediately after school.”

There is not even an emoji to tag onto the end to sum up the shame and confusion I felt. (Crying wineglass?)

He was surprised to see me since he had plans to walk to a friend’s house.

“Mama! Why are you here?”

Stay calm. “You tell me.”

We sat in the car for several quiet minutes, until I realized he was crying.

“Tell me about lunch today.”

He admitted it. He said they tease about each other’s mothers (It was all I could do to shriek, WHAT DO THEY SAY ABOUT ME?!) and usually the girl in question thought it was funny.

“But it wasn’t me saying the bad stuff,” he sniffled.

“Did you laugh?”


“Did you know it was wrong?”


“Did you tell them to stop?”


“Did you tell a teacher she was upset?”


So here we are, in the most toxic position to be in: Silence.

“Do you want to known as a mean kid?” I ask him. “Because even if you weren’t saying the ‘bad stuff’ you are forever grouped with this situation. If that was you being picked on, what would have made you feel better?”

“If someone had told them to stop,” he says. “I should have.”

After fourth grade, research shows children become more self-centric and less concerned with the happiness of others. (Which is why cliques start around this age.) We need to capitalize on those early years to foster an innate drive to be kind.

Kindness doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You must actively display this for your children at every age. Even making snarky comments about passersby or not speaking against unkind acts builds permission to act the same.

Since “doing less bad” isn’t enough, actively advocate for kindness. Donate books and clothes, pick up trash, visit animal shelters, draw a card for a lonely neighbor, play with a new child at the park, don’t let your t(w)eens online unsupervised, join a peaceful gathering for a meaningful cause. Because if we aren’t teaching kindness to our children on a daily basis, there are plenty of people who will show them the opposite.

Maggie Knowles writes about all things kid. She and her family live in Yarmouth, where she gardens, keeps bees and refuses to get rid of her stilettos.

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