The back door slams shut. Seconds later, Jimmy stomps across the kitchen and into the dark living room, where he sinks dejectedly into an easy chair.
“What's wrong?” I ask, because obviously something is wrong.
“Nothing,” my son says from the shadows in the next room.
“Well, clearly there's something wrong, or you wouldn't be so upset. What happened?”
“Just the same thing that always happens,” he says, trading his seat in the dark for a chair at the kitchen table, where I'm sitting with my teenage daughters. His face is red and sweaty, and he's fighting back a lump in his throat as he talks.
“What always happens?” I ask, disconcerted that something is happening with the frequency of “always” and I'm completely unaware what that is.
“Whenever we're playing and there are three of us guys, it always turns out that the other two start picking on me and giving me a hard time. It's always two against one. No one ever takes my side. Never.”
I remember you're not supposed to give much credence to statements that include “always” and “never,” a gem I learned from the Ladies' Home Journal feature “Can this Marriage Be Saved?” So I'm skeptical, though I can see Jimmy's committed to his position.
“Let's start at the beginning,” I say in a calm, motherly voice.
My son pours out his tale of woe.
He and two buddies are playing outside. One buddy starts picking on Jimmy. The other friend laughs along. Jimmy gets defensive and emotional. They tease him for being defensive and emotional.
Then they go inside to play a board game. The teasing cycle starts anew until finally, my son gives up and runs home in anger and frustration.
“They didn't even care about the Monopoly game,” he anguishes. “I had to move their pieces around the board and everything.”
And they say girls are melodramatic.
Of course, preteen drama and friendship struggles aren't reserved just for girls. Virtually all children feel the sting of teasing from their pals, which prompted some parent in history to conjure the rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me.”
Whoever thought of that ditty may have meant well, but we modern parents know that nothing could be further from the truth.
I'm just about to kick into a higher parenting gear to lead a brainstorming session on “things Jimmy could have done other than get mad at his friends,” but it turns out my skill as a facilitator isn't needed. Instead, my daughters jump into the conversation with stories meant to comfort their younger brother.
Pretty soon they're playing “can you top this,” generating giggles from Jimmy as they recount the hurt and humiliation they suffered at the hands of their preteen pals.
“You think you have it bad?” one of them says. “How about the time I had to sit on the bus to middle school camp with a teacher because none of my friends saved me a seat?”
“That's nothing,” the other one says. “At least you never stayed inside to read during recess because no one would play with you.”
Their stories help ease the tension, but only a little. Jimmy's still upset and annoyed and anxious about what to expect when he goes outside to play the next day.
I listen while my children talk about Jimmy's alternatives finding other guys to play with, ignoring the teasing, dreaming up snappy comebacks. One of the girls even suggests the standard, caveman response: “Why don't you just haul off and punch them? I thought that was the advantage to being a boy.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Thanks, Katie. That's really helpful.” Sigh.
Jimmy tries to explain what he did to get the boys to stop the offending behavior, and right away, it's clear that he could have handled things better.
“The only person whose actions you can control is you,” I say. “I think you have to stop taking everything the boys say so seriously. You need a sense of humor about yourself.”
Just then the phone rings. Jimmy jumps up to answer it, and sure enough, it's his neighborhood pal calling to apologize for the teasing. Jimmy says he's sorry, too, for overreacting and getting so mad. They agree to lighten up and to hang out the next day.
A 30-second phone call resolved the situation far better than my maternal musings about friendship.
When he comes back to the kitchen, my son is a new person; his pessimism is gone, and instead he's filled with the confidence that comes when friends reassure you that they care about you.
Unfortunately, friends don't usually call to say they're sorry. This is why it's essential for children to learn the rules of the friendship game: forgiveness, good humor, kindness and empathy and apply those rules even when their pals don't.
It's not easy, and it doesn't happen overnight. It takes maturity and experience to learn that even good friends might sometimes hurt your feelings. Hard as it is to imagine, you may even look back one day and laugh about it.
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 19 years and mother of four children from third grade to junior year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)