I have often thought of bullying as a problem that faces children older than mine, but a recent conversation with my first grader has given me pause. Maybe it starts right here, right now with our little ones.
Katie loves Star Wars, and she was very excited about her new items. For the first few months of school, she proudly filled her water bottle herself and helped me pack her lunch each morning.
But a week ago, as we were packing her lunch, Katie said, "My Star Wars water bottle is too small. It doesn't hold enough water. Can I take a different one?" She searched through the cupboard until she found a pink water bottle and said, "I'll bring this."
I was perplexed. "Katie, that water bottle is no bigger than your Star Wars one. I think it is actually smaller."
"It's fine, I'll just take it," she insisted.
I kept pushing the issue, because it didn't make sense to me. Suddenly, Katie burst into tears.
She wailed, "The first grade boys are teasing me at lunch because I have a Star Wars water bottle. They say it's only for boys. Every day they make fun of me for drinking out of it. I want them to stop, so I'll just bring a pink water bottle."
I hugged her hard and felt my heart sink. Such a tender young age, and already she is embarrassed about the water bottle that brought her so much excitement and joy a few months ago.
Is this how it starts? Do kids find someone who does something differently and start to beat it out of her, first with words and sneers? Must my daughter conform to be accepted?
The confusing part for me is that I know these first grade boys. I can't simply see them as random mean boys bullying my baby. They are good kids individually, and Katie often plays happily with them.
But when you put the boys together in a pack, maybe they start to feel vulnerable and insecure, which causes them to do unkind things, such as tease my daughter for carrying a Star Wars water bottle.
Maybe they do it to get laughs out of each other. Maybe they do it because if they are busy teasing Katie, nobody will tease one of them. Maybe they do it because they want her attention and have limited social skills at this age.
"Katie, it is okay to be different. Not all girls need to drink out of pink water bottles," I told her.
"I don't want to be too different," Katie lamented. "I'm already different. Nobody else in my class wears glasses or a patch, and nobody else was adopted. Now I'm even more different, because of my Star Wars water bottle."
Katie cannot control the fact that she is different due to adoption or poor eyesight. But she can control what accessories she carries to school, and she is trying to exercise that control. She has learned that there are degrees of being different, and she wants to minimize how different she is.
Being different is a complicated topic. We say that we celebrate diversity, and we preach tolerance. But at the same time, we as adults are often fearful of those who are different. I see people tease each other for being gay or poor or overweight. I see grown-ups bullying others for holding different religious and political beliefs.
I see people publicly lauding diversity and privately attacking those who are different.
It trickles down to kids teasing each other for the types of toys they prefer. So it starts now, with a couple first graders and a water bottle. Right here, right now, we as a community need to recognize the slippery slope of bullying those who are different. We need to show our support for each other's choices, as long as they do no harm.
I talked to Katie about all my musings. Talking about it is the best defense. I have urged her to bring the Star Wars water bottle if that is what she really wants to do, even if it makes her different. Today, she felt brave enough to bring it. I hope that she is able to eat her lunch without feeling nervous.
I would love to be able to show Katie that she is not alone, that other females appreciate Star Wars. If there are any female Star Wars fans reading this, please feel free to show your support for Katie. I will let her read your messages or comments, and I think she will be surprised by what I suspect is a vast number of female fans.
And if you have a little boy out there who wants to carry a pink water bottle, tell him about Katie and reassure him that if she can carry a "boy" water bottle, he can carry a "girl" water bottle. Let's help all our kids grow into confident adults who can appreciate being different.