In the early days of dating my boyfriend, group hangouts with his friends often left me exhausted, having spent hours navigating their conversational shorthand, loaded with quick, petty barbs, decades-old inside jokes. Later, my fatigue made me wonder about our future child: Would they be quiet and withdrawn like me, more attuned to emotion than comebacks? Or like their father and his friends: quick, forever ready with a sharp retort?
Whenever I voiced these questions, my husband reminded me that he had a different childhood than mine. He grew up in a culture of teasing, and learned to ignore or fire back as necessary, suffering the occasional bruised ego but taking refuge in his ability to give just as good as he got. “I want her to be able to dish it out, to stand up for herself,” he said.
We both heard his unspoken unlike you. I didn’t take offense. I wanted the same for her.
Words are wind, blows are unkind. That’s the adage my mother grew up with. She was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. I learned about her childhood through her stories, cocooned beneath warm bed sheets, chin propped on my fists, relishing the circuitous lilt of her patois. She spun tales of her days on the schoolyard, giggling at memories that shocked and tickled me at the same time.
When I asked my mother what nicknames she had been called as a child, she laughed. “Pigeon Chest,” she recalled. “I used to stick out my chest when I walked. And Blacky, because my skin was dark. I kept trying to hunch my back so I would be less noticeable, but it never worked. And then I stopped caring.” Rather than give in to the teasing of her schoolmates, she decided to ignore them, projecting a false confidence until it became real. Every time I heard that story, I’d wonder: Why can’t I do that?
From my mother I learned that Jamaicans are often unapologetic in their snap judgments, quick to assess someone’s physical characteristics and share their completely unfiltered opinion. My mother once knew a girl named Violet who had particularly large lips and became known as “Lippy.” Another girl who was admired for her light skin and long hair was dubbed “Pretty Dunce” when it was discovered she wasn’t very bright. A young man with a bulbous nose and sharp wit yielded “Cyrano.” “Whatever was wrong with you, that’s what your name was,” my mother said.
I witnessed this bluntness firsthand at family gatherings, where it wasn’t unusual to hear booming commentary on a person’s weight or how much they had aged since the last reunion. I always shrank during these exchanges, terrified of becoming the subject of someone’s laser-eyed judgment—I knew I would wilt, rather than bristle or laugh or fire back. I knew then that I didn’t quite fit.
The author as a child, with her mother
I was thin-skinned as a child, with an ego that could put bruised peaches to shame. People were loud, invasive, and often unreadable to me. I had trouble parsing the difference between jokes and actual insults. Wearing my insecurity like a cloak, I shrugged when people stopped calling me “sensitive” as a child and started calling me “moody” as a teenager. It bothered me, but I was tired of my discomfort being put on display. Adolescent brooding suited me.
Over the years, I thought you didn’t like me became a familiar refrain, usually shared with me by a new friend a few weeks into our acquaintance. What I never admitted, of course, is that I wasn’t sure I did like them, at least right away. What I didn’t admit is that I rarely felt secure in where I stood with friends and acquaintances. Was I hated in secret? Tolerated? Taunted? Growing older has only complicated this; I feel trapped between stoic self-preservation, which comes naturally to me, and the societal pressure to be open and inviting, to prove myself worthy of the sort of easy-going relationships that seem to mostly elude me. I’m often puzzled by boundaries, so I err on the side of caution, and then wonder why in moments of need I don’t feel comfortable reaching out to many of the people I call friends.
I think a lot about power and how we exercise it—not only in antagonistic relationships, where the rules are usually much more cut-and-dry, but also when we genuinely care for someone. How do we learn to navigate the ever-shifting, invisible structures of influence, of fairness, of reciprocity? How do we reconcile the instinctive, defensive response to our perceived shortcomings with the simple desire to be a good friend?
My fourth-grade classmate Tiffany had blue eyes, blonde hair, and a large, solid build that made her a somewhat menacing figure to me before she even opened her mouth. She played as rough as the boys, often got into trouble, and—for reasons I could never understand—seemed to want to be my friend. That is, when she didn’t hate me. I could never predict when she would suddenly become my enemy. She would push me, pinch me, mess with my things, and laugh when I told her to stop. And yet I was desperate to be friends with her. She would link arms with me and share secrets and gossip, making a public show of elevating me above the other girls in our class who similarly sought her favor. Other days, she took pleasure in tormenting me, a constant vacillation that left me exhausted and frequently near tears by the time I got home. I wondered if this was just what friendship was, a never-ending fight for approval, a struggle for dominance amid brief moments of genuine affection. Should I let her dictate the terms of our relationship, day in and day out? Was I weak for allowing it to continue?
The tables turned for me later that year, as I discovered that I was capable of becoming a Tiffany in my own right. Harriet the Spy inspired me to create a Burn Book, which my friends and I passed around, purposely excluding one girl who we knew wanted to be friends with us. Her desperation to join our clique is what solidified our bond; if we had included her, what would be the point? The exclusivity was the draw. When she finally called us out, I was quick to rise to our defense, though I knew when I wasn’t being nice. It felt good to stop being nice for once. We continued to add to the Burn Book until the teacher called my mom about it, concerned about the divisions we were creating in the classroom.
In fifth grade, I wielded my newfound power against another student—a new girl—out of jealousy this time, not bored spite. I resented how pretty she was, how nice her handwriting was, the fact that so many boys liked her. Between attacks I also tried, rather pathetically, to be her friend. It was exactly the sort of twisted game that Tiffany had played with me, but I was nowhere near self-aware enough to recognize the pattern. It wasn’t until my teacher pulled me into the hallway for yet another private meeting (I had a lot of those that year) and told me to “stop being a bully” that I finally recognized who I’d become. It seemed impossible that someone I admired (wasn’t it clear?) could be brought low by whatever lies I spread about her. She had seemed so perfect, so above it all. How could I have made her cry ?
In 2012, when I was a teacher-in-training, it was ingrained in us to have a zero-tolerance policy when it came to bullying. If a child felt attacked, taunted, or abused, they were A Victim, point blank, and it needed to be dealt with.
While we were often able to pick up on the frequent, petty friction between friends and cliques in our classrooms and hallways, it was impossible to know everything that went on outside of the building or online. In most cases, by the time we became privy to drama on social media, it was because the conflict had already boiled over to the point of a physical altercation.
I often wondered, as I held excited students back from egging on a fight, what we adults might be getting wrong in the fight against bullying. It seemed there were too many factors completely outside our control; every day we went to battle with a hydra spawned of hormones, of domestic trauma, of poverty, of a thousand varied hurts that reared their heads all at once, or only a few at a time. And what cut me deepest, years removed from my own self-imposed cage of paranoia and doubt, were the girls who reminded me of myself: the girls who couldn’t handle the teasing. Who would clam up, shut down, or later lash out in frustration, desperate to taste a bit of the power that had held their noses to the ground for so long.
As I reflect on my elementary-school misery, sometimes it’s devastating to look at my young daughter and realize the passage of time only hastens her eventual induction into similar milestones: elementary school burn books. Middle school cliques. High school parties. Digital drama I never had to deal with. For each exhilarating new step, there is a terrifying new trial, one that we’ll have to negotiate together until she no longer wants our help.
She’s two and a half years old now. I’ve begun to see a change in the way she responds to other kids during playdates, on the playground, in her classroom. More often than not, she won’t blink before she snatches a toy back, screeching “NO, MINE!” and giving the other kid a smack or hard shove. Or she’ll relent, throwing her arms above her head and crying in plaintive defeat. In both scenarios, I find myself wanting to intervene, to correct, afraid that her instinctive response will become fixed. Too moody, too sensitive. Don’t be a bully.
Is there a right way to assert control, or a wrong way to defend yourself? How do you begin to teach a child to navigate power dynamics? To cultivate pride and self-sufficiency, and at the same time demonstrate kindness and compassion? I wonder how much my daughter internalizes while watching her dad and me navigate conflict—between ourselves, and out in the world. Are we demonstrating the values we’d like her to adopt? When the time comes, will it even be possible to pre-empt a trial by fire, or will attempting to do so be a disservice to her?
As a child, I lacked the sort of toughness that only comes from being toughened up. Maybe a part of being a parent is understanding when to intervene, and when to allow your child to stumble. She won’t learn how to pick herself up if we never let her fall down.
When my mother met with a former elementary school teacher in 2008 after not seeing her for over twenty years, she was laughingly told that her feet no longer looked like “man feet” but that her “hands favor man hands.” We both laughed when she told me this story. I tried to imagine Miss Hopper, my fifth-grade teacher, ever saying something like that to me, and failed. She just wasn’t—isn’t—that kind of person.
And I’m not that kind of person, either. It’s become easier, over the years, to engage with other people, or pretend to, as the situation dictates—the rituals of adulthood and grudging desire for social capital demand that I practice this skill—but there’s a unique comfort in stepping onto the floor to perform the tango that once eluded me, and then gracefully bowing out. Allowing myself to be vulnerable in front of other people, offering friendship and receiving it, listening more than I speak. I can make small talk and polish my most eloquent and witty self to be on display in social settings—an artifice, at worst, but one that nevertheless brings some measure of satisfaction when executed successfully. If I can’t feel completely comfortable in a given setting, I don’t internalize that as a personal failure, or outsource that discomfort to antagonize someone else. I just retreat to a quiet corner to scroll through Twitter, or go home.
I have some regrets about the way I’ve learned to navigate the world, certain behaviors I wish were innate. Sometimes social cues fly over my head and I want nothing more than to rewind the last thirty seconds of a conversation. Pained, self-conscious smiles abound. But age has a certain blunting effect: Where once there was humiliation, now there is only amused resignation and acceptance.
I’m still more sensitive than I would like; that hasn’t changed. But I won’t feel like a fraud telling my daughter one day that it’s alright to feign confidence, sometimes. It’s alright to stand up tall and stick out your chest until you drown out the real or imagined voice saying you shouldn’t. Words, wind, sticks, stones—now I prefer to move myself, rather than be moved. And I have to believe there is strength in that.