My little boy is unhappy. Really unhappy, I think. And I am angry. I’m not sure who with.
His problem, as I’ve been told by his teachers, his school principal and other well-meaning parents, is that he’s ‘so clever’. He is ‘operating on another plane to the other kids’ and ‘they don’t get him’.
Of course, that’s not his whole problem. He is also remarkably stubborn and incredibly self-centred. He lives inside his head, with the outside world coming a distant second to the rich universe he has created for himself – a source of new ideas and obsessions, or characters to be drawn in to his elaborate games.
F has a football team at school, he tells me. The Melbourne Dinosaurs. He is the captain and they win every game. They are on top of the schoolyard ladder. He describes their games and his goals in minute detail as we walk home through the park.
He also has a band. They were originally called Kids R Cool but now they are called Dimension X. He is the lead singer and the lead guitarist. One of his friends is on keyboards (he plays keyboards at school), another is on bass and another is on drums. ‘We’re counting on S for the drums!’ F tells me in the early stages. ‘He hasn’t signed on yet but he just has to. He’s the ONLY ONE who can do it.’ When I ask his friends about their band, they look confused. They shake their heads, pause and eventually say ‘yeah, okay’.
He brought his football to school earlier in the week. At the end of the day he told me it was the Worst Day Ever. That was probably the third Worst Day Ever in one week of school days. He said that the other kids took his ball and then walked off and wouldn’t let him play with them. They said ‘we don’t want to play with F, he’s boring and stupid’. He also said his team were winning and scored lots of goals. One of his friends was wandering in small circles nearby, waiting to be picked up. I asked him about the game. F was correct about what the other kids said about him. But his team were thrashed. Of course.
No one else is aware of the Melbourne Dinosaurs either, though I hear about their adventures every day.
Two weeks ago, walking home from school, F told me about his terrible day. There were bullies. A kid hit him. Another punched him. Another poked him. I hear this stuff a lot, and I know it’s not all black and white. I know F can be an antagonist. I said ‘that’s terrible’.
‘Yeah’ he continued, dragging his backpack behind him on the bitumen. ‘Then I spent half an hour hiding behind the garbage bins crying.’
‘A teacher found me. She took me to [the principal].’
He was more upset than I’ve seen him in a long time. He was crying, he said, because he realised that he didn’t have any friends and nobody liked him. We had a big talk and I promised to go up to the school the next day and talk to the principal. I told him that he was a great kid and repeated some nice things another mum had said to me about him recently. I hugged him – and he let me, which is becoming rarer these days.
That night, we went out. It was his dad’s night to have him and he picked him up from our destination to take him home. I got a lift to a taxi stand nearer to my house. In the back seat, F begged to come to my house. He sniffled a little and talked about how it would make his bad day a bit better if he could come home with me. We told him that he was going to dad’s and I would see him tomorrow. When his dad pulled up at the taxi stand, F burst into real sobs and clung to me. I got out of the car.
‘He’s really upset’ I whispered to his dad. ‘Please let me take him.’
‘I’m his father and I need to deal with this too.’
I glanced into the back seat, where F’s face was buried in his own lap.
‘Please’ I begged. ‘I can’t tell him he’s not welcome with me when he’s this upset.’ I burst into tears. F’s poor father (who had now driven to pick him up at 8.30pm for nothing) looked at me, standing in the street sobbing into the dark, and his son, now howling on the back seat, and shook his head.
F and I guiltily held hands in the back of the taxi as we crossed the Westgate Bridge, our eyes dry.
Half an hour later, F lay still in his bed as I stroked his hair and gave him a goodnight cuddle. Usually, he wriggles and talks in an attempt to keep my attention as long as possible. Tonight, he was so content for me to leave him to sleep that I perversely turned back to sit beside him awhile.
‘Mum’ he murmured eventually, turning on his back to face me with solemn eyes. ‘Today I realised that I was weak.’
‘Because I couldn’t defeat the bullies, no matter how I tried.’
‘What did you do?’
‘Well then’ I scrambled in my mental odds-and-ends basket of homespun wisdom, hoping to come up with something that would fit the occasion. ‘That means you’re strong, actually. They’re the weak ones, because they needed to make you feel bad in order to make themselves feel tough. Cowards do that. By doing nothing, you showed that you’re not like that.’
I kissed him good night and left. Since then, to my surprise, he has twice told kids in the playground that they are weak because they are being mean to him to make themselves feel tough. It’s always surprising what sinks in, and what provides comfort.
I should mention that F has not begged to be left with me (or with his dad) at changeover time for a year or more.
Two days ago:
‘I think the teacher has found out my secret’ he glumly announced over dinner. ‘She announced it to the whole class.’
‘What’s your secret?’
‘That I play alone in the playground because I have no friends.’
‘Oh, darling. What did she say?’
‘She said: if F comes up to you in the playground and wants to play with you, you should let him. Say, ‘hi F, of course.’ Make him welcome.’ He frowned into his bowl of noodles. ‘It was so humiliating.’
I don’t know who I am angry with. I’m angry with the kids who are mean to him. But I’m aware that a lot of it is not that black and white. He has a temper and he can aggravate some of the ‘bullying’ he gets. He likes to be in charge. And other kids, understandably, are less keen on the idea. Especially when he’s one of the less popular kids in the school. He likes to play what he wants to play. I’ve asked him ‘well, why didn’t you play with … ?’ and the answer is often related to the game they’re playing. It’s no fun. He wants other people to play with him, but he wants them to play what he wants. He needs to learn that it’s a choice. Play on your own and be the boss of proceedings, or play with others and learn to compromise. But I also know that he tries to play with other kids and they tell him to get lost. I know that friends of his don’t play with him because their other friends ‘said so’. (I remember that one from my own schoolyard days.) And yes, I know that a lot of the kids ‘don’t get him’ and are ‘not on his wavelength’.
So, what do I do? I want him to learn to compromise, but not to change who he is. I like his wavelength. Where do I find other children who are on his wavelength? Surely there are other bright, eccentric kids out there who like to create their own worlds? (And hopefully, if they exist, they could create shared worlds.)
His first teacher firmly believed that he is ‘very gifted’ and suggested we get him tested. The school principal vetoed the idea and said he was too young and that what he needs is to learn to fit in. That his problems are social, not educational. His subsequent teachers have followed the idea that F needs to do what everyone else does. His first teacher extended him with his own books, educational magazines and a range of activities for him to do when the other kids were doing work that (she said) he knew backwards already. She thought boredom was his problem. When the other kids were chanting the alphabet, he would be sitting at his table with his head in a Horrid Henry book. He was allowed to choose his readers from the library. His current teacher took away the chapter books that he was reading last year (and earlier this year). What will he read next year if he reads the chapter books now?
As you can tell, I am confused. I am confusing the issue. Is it about socialisation or education or both? Are the two linked? Socialisation is definitely the priority. That’s what is making him unhappy. But am I allowed to care about the education, too – or does that make me a crazy stage mother? Right now, my solution of the moment is that we need to find him a school where there are other bright children, which might make it easier for him to make friends. Given my teeny tiny salary, that will be a challenge.
I know I need to work on his social skills. But that’s hard to do when he doesn’t have friends to work on them with. Of the ones he has: the teachers have suggested he should be kept away from one of them as they are a bad influence on each other; another is as dreamy as him, though in a different way, and they only occasionally collide; the Mother of the last has none-too-subtly discouraged her son from playing with F and has stopped their once-regular play dates 'until further notice' because they fight. A month ago.
I'm making him do Auskick on Saturdays, which he doesn't much like, in order to teach him team skills and get him socialising. I stand at the sidelines and admonish him to 'pay attention' during the training part, and then watch dejectedly as he mooches around the field during the game, occasionally throwing himself to the ground with frustration when he doesn't get the ball and spending more time frowning at the shouting, jumping, running pack than joining it. It is torture for us both. (Me more than him, I suspect - he does enjoy horsing around with his buddies during the training. And it's incredibly embarassing that he behaves like this.) But I'm sure it's something we should be doing, at least for now. He needs to learn the skills of teamwork before he can decide it's not for him. Right?
If anyone knows anything useful about schools in Melbourne where there are bright children, or where bright children are encouraged, let me know. And thank you, if you have, for reading this far.