Our kids interact regularly with people who are different and might make them uncomfortable. Sometimes, though, “uncomfortable” becomes dangerous.
I don’t know if it was a parenting fail or not but it certainly didn’t feel good—not for me, and not for her.
Our middle child had an after-school function with three other schools. Gavri, our eldest, had attended the same function two years before and joined us, curious to see if she’d recognize any alumni from her year.
Sure enough, close to the end of the evening, I spotted Gavri sitting on a windowsill with a teenager from one of the other schools. I snapped a picture of the two girls in long skirts, one with fair skin and a sweater modestly covering her shoulders, one with dark skin and a hijab. I planned to caption it, “Stolen Moments,” along with some witty hashtag, no doubt. I recognized the young woman from earlier in the evening: She had approached me when the schools—one Jewish and two Muslim—took time to recite their respective afternoon prayers. I suspected from her overly affectionate behavior that she might have some social delays. But Gavri was smiling and nodding her head as the girl talked to her.
My children spend a lot of time with people who are “different.” Our family hosts a free meal at our synagogue every week. Every week, my children interact with folks who want a free meal and folks who need a free meal. My husband serves as rabbi for a local retirement residence, and we visit their Shabbat (Sabbath) table at least monthly. My kids help set the table and serve the residents.
My children are used to feeling uncomfortable. They are sometimes annoyed that this is how we have chosen to live our lives—surrounded by people who are “different”—as well as the fact that we expect them to actively engage with all of these people. “Arrrrgh! But I’m BORED! I don’t WANT to!” they might argue. “I don’t care,” I have responded. I have definitely told my children that I don’t care about their feelings in situations like these.
At one point during the after-school function, I looked up and the girl had her arm around Gavri. But what had at first looked like two teenage girls sharing personal space and innocent secrets soon looked more like the other girl dragging my daughter from one person to the other. I finally realized Gavri had a combined look of “I’m so flattered she likes me!” and “OK, this dragging is a little awkward and uncomfortable—OMG, when will she STOP?!”
I had ignored any inclination that I had that my daughter was unsafe because they were such a vision of harmony—a picture of peace and unity and the innocence of youth. But there was something about the way Gavri was pressing her lips into a smile as she was dragged from person to person. There was something about the way she seemed to plead with me with her eyes. I knew something was wrong even if I didn’t know what it was.
So I approached them.
“Do you need a break?” I asked Gavri.
She didn’t quite answer.
So I asked in Hebrew, a language we both speak but I knew the other child would not understand, “Do you need help?”
She replied. “Maybe…kinda…yeah…”
I ended up having to remove the girl’s arm from around Gavri’s shoulders. When she walked away, Gavri started crying. She hadn’t really believed that anything bad would happen, but felt scared nonetheless. The girl had actually whispered threatening comments in her ear, but Gavri could tell the girl had delays and didn’t want to hurt her feelings by asking for help
“I realized afterward I should have asked you for help in Hebrew,” she said the next day. I pointed out that because she is regularly pushed outside her comfort zone, spending time with people who are different than she is, she is used to suppressing expressions of discomfort. But this crossed a line.
“There doesn’t have to be a ‘should have,’” I told her. “Now you know, going forward, sometimes your feelings have to be more important than someone else’s. It wasn’t so nice for me to speak to you in Hebrew in front of someone else (who wouldn’t understand), was it?”
“It’s not my job to be nice. It’s my job to be your mommy.”
I know it’s the exposure Gavri has to people who make her feel uncomfortable and the fact that she placed greater emphasis on the other girl’s feelings than her own that caused Gavri to not ask for help outright or even to really advocate for herself. It really is important to us that our children learn to tolerate a little discomfort. I’m hoping, going forward, our children will feel confident and understand the distinction between “uncomfortable” and “unsafe.”
I’ve also made an effort to begin reminding my children that everybody’s feelings count—including theirs.
After this incident, my husband suggested that we establish a code or signal for them to use if they ever feel unsafe. Gavri seemed be given permission to ask for help. She was doubtful, however, that anything like this would ever happen again and that she would have the opportunity to use the code. “I would like to agree with you, Gavri,” I responded. “And I certainly hope that you never have to use it. But I think we’ve learned that it’s a good idea to have a code, and for you and your siblings to know that you’re allowed to use it without any concern for getting in trouble—even if you never use it.”