My kid’s a good human being, and I’m terrified she’s going to be crushed.

It was early September and I was walking into the cafeteria with my third grade class. Walking past a table, I saw a girl I knew and said “hi” to her enthusiastically. She turned red. Her classmates laughed. I had done something wrong.

I learned that there were rules I didn’t know–that being legitimately excited to see someone and expressing it could lead to feeling bad. I wasn’t sure what was going on. The elementary school caste system had already started to form, and I was going to be near the bottom until I met them all again on our long journey to the middle.

My neighborhood had a ton of kids in it. We played all sorts of games, built forts, held Nintendo tournaments. We (generally) got along as friends, but there started to be a distinction as to whether we were also “school friends.” The kids who all played kickball together at home tacitly agreed to not acknowledge each other while at school.

I didn’t have it as bad as many, but I was picked on and teased. I learned not to be openly excited about things. I kept to my own nerdy kind. I learned to expose as little of my soft underbelly as possible, lest feral middle-schoolers devour it.

— ∮∮∮ —

My oldest daughter did something sweet recently. As she entered the cafeteria at school, she saw her friend and asked her teacher if she could go say hello. She did–and gave him a hug. According to reports, it made him feel good.

I immediately projected my own experiences on the situation. How long before she does the same thing and gets emotionally crushed? How long before my caring, in-love-with-world daughter starts constructing her own shell to hide in? How long before she is crushed by the judgment of her peers? I know I can’t protect her from this–it’s part of growing up–but how can I help her? It’d be so much easier if we could just Sorting Hat kids into groups based on their personality traits.

The answer is: she’s not me. She will have experiences entirely removed from those I had. I can impart my advice, but the best thing I can do is love her as she adapts herself to the world, however she chooses to do that. She might stop wearing her heart on her sleeve, she might not. She might stop being so openly excited by things, or she might learn sooner than most that it’s OK to like what she likes. She might use her powers of empathy for evil instead of good, take control of the hearts and minds of her peers, and bend them to her will.

The worst thing I can do is assume I know what’s going on with my kids framed entirely by my own experiences. I should listen to them and meet them where they are and not where I was when I was seven. I shouldn’t treat my kids’ lives as metaphors of my life. Just because I had a bad cafeteria moment, doesn’t mean that bad cafeteria moments are inevitable. And, while middle school is horrible for everyone (because middle school is the worst place on the planet) my kids will have different horrible middle school experiences than I had.

I have no idea what my kids are going to be like, and that’s both freeing and terrifying.

Photo by: punkscrapper

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Sam Davies

Sam Davies is the father of two daughters (ages five and eight) who lives in Northside Richmond. He and his wife Kat are trying their best to not raise sociopaths.

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