The other day my wife came back from a trip to Tunisia bearing a jebba for the kid. A jebba is a traditional type of Tunisian dress notable for its beautiful traditional embroidery and loose fit. Because both the jebba and my kid are awesome, my five-year-old son decided to wear it to school. Because school is fully of cruel children, I was fairly certain he would be mercilessly mocked for wearing it. The question, therefore, arose: Should I let my child be laughed at?
On the “Make him wear a t-shirt!” side of the argument was my wife, who quite naturally, was loathe to let him loose with what amounted to a “Mock Me!” sign. According to her logic, if the kid went to school and was mocked, he would become traumatized. This trauma would negatively impact the likelihood of him being daring in the future.
I, on the other hand, posited that the most insidious sort of censorship is self-censorship. Thin is the line between protection and suppression. It would be far more damaging, I thought, for us to build a schema by which our child should not express himself for fear that expression could incur mockery. I am also constitutionally opposed to capitulation. This is something people notice when they meet me.
But I am also adult, with the armor of adulthood to protect my admittedly fragile sense of self from the arrows and slings of others. Our kid’s flesh is raw. The world he inhabits is, if not purely benign, not yet beset by the sand traps of ill will and the steel jaws of haters.
The question at play could be easily reframed into the dilemma that touches all parents nearly all the time: How much of our own trip should we lay on our kids? My wife suffers from timidity; I, perhaps, from the opposite. She is neurotic that others don’t laugh at our kid; I am neurotic that that others laughing at our kid might impinge on him being as weird, brilliant and wackadoo.
Stuck in the middle is a kid in a jebbe getting later and later for school.
There’s a word for what might be built if he is greeted by jeers in the schoolyard: resilience. Resilience, according to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, is “the ability to overcome serious hardship.” Getting laughed at isn’t serious hardship, of course. But it is kinda heartbreaking. Also useful. There are four steps to building resiliency in spawn, according to the CDC:
- facilitating supportive adult-child relationships;
- building a sense of self-efficacy and perceived control;
- providing opportunities to strengthen adaptive skills and self-regulatory capacities; and
- mobilizing sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions
Letting the boy wear the jebba — supporting his choice to wear it in the face of criticism — hits at least three of those four steps. (And, I guess, also the fourth but the jebbe isn’t really our cultural tradition.) But, ultimately, it goes beyond the jebba. It’s that we care one way or the other. Researchers found “the single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.” Our kid has two of those.
Even if we don’t agree on much, my wife and I agree on our love for our son. So perhaps it doesn’t matter so much what he wears or who laughs at him for wearing it; just that we care. In the end, we compromised. The boy wore the jebbe but brought a change of clothes too, in case the laughter of his peers overcame him. Happily, when we picked him up, he was smiling. He hadn’t changed one bit.