“I need to make a shield to bring to school,” my 5-year-old son says in a matter-of-fact way as he drifts off to sleep at the end of a long weekend. “Why?” his dad asks. “The boys at school hit me, and I need to find a way to protect myself. I keep telling them to stop, but they won’t stop, so I need to make some sort of shield. It needs to be stronger than cardboard, but it can’t be metal because we’re not allowed to bring weapons to school. What is stronger than cardboard but not as hard as metal?”
How do we as parents answer these types of questions that pop up in the quiet space between turning the last page of Maurice Sendak’s In The Night Kitchen and watching our child’s eyes gently close for the night?
“What is stronger than cardboard but not as hard as metal?” the question continues to echo in my head long after my child is asleep. It’s been almost a full school year now that he has spoken of being teased and bullied by a small group of boys in his class. What I hear my preschooler asking is, “When I wake up tomorrow and face the world, what sort of shield is acceptable for me to use so I won’t get hurt so much?” Does it take the unbending form of a stiff upper lip, refusing to betray the fear and loneliness underneath? Does it take a more phantom form, a way of making oneself small, unnoticeable, able to slip away silently? Does it take the polished form of arrogance, a way of puffing oneself up and trying to be smarter than or better than somehow? Or perhaps it takes the form of a stomachache or headache, a way of saying, “Please don’t make me go to school today, Mom.”
I notice a desire quicken in me to try to shield him myself—to call up his teachers tomorrow and demand they protect my kid from all hurts. I know it’s an impossible ask, and that his teachers are doing everything in their power to create a safe environment, but I still can’t help but want that. I notice a desire to bust out the mama bear in me and go tell these other boys off, “Don’t you dare hurt my son.” But I know that won’t help either, and I also know these other boys are okay kids too. (It’s not like my kid’s coming home with bruises; I can intuit the hitting and teasing he reports is more your run-of-the-mill rambunctious albeit at times mean-spirited boy stuff). Lastly, I notice my all-time favorite shields come up: over-thinking and over-problem solving. I think about a litany of future scenarios and wonder, “What if this gets worse? What if he never fits in? What if this scars him forever?” “Would intervening make me a helicopter mom?” “What books on bullying do I need to purchase?” and so on. I sit with the over-thinking mama bear in me, and I let her grumble and eventually settle.
Then in that quiet settling, I picture my kid. I picture not the shields bred by my fears. I picture the shield my 5-year-old would actually make. With soft tears coming to my eyes, I imagine my son, in the special way he does things, creating a shield out of some leftover poster board in the closet. I picture him diving into the project in the way he tackles most things—with intense gusto. He gathers his favorite tools: a paintbrush, his hot glue gun, scissors, and tape. He gathers his materials: paint, magazine clippings, leaves, small rocks, and most importantly, thick white foam board that is stronger than cardboard.
From his wounds, he creates. He empowers and protects himself in the best way he knows how. He does so intuitively, because he trusts himself and he has people in his corner who trust him too. He paints bold strokes in his favorite colors, green and blue. He creates a border around the shield by hot gluing little rocks and taping on colorful leaves—his treasures, he calls them. He cuts out magazine clippings of images that bring him joy: flowers, trees, ice cream cones, smiling faces. This is the shield my 5-year-old would make. When I look at my sleeping son, I know in his heart he feels a deep belonging, significance, and okayness that free him from needing shields of the hardened, neurotic, or overly polished variety. From his pain, he will create a one-of-a-kind, shimmering shield of resilience, and yes, my child: it will be stronger than cardboard but not as hard as metal.