Sometimes, it just isn’t fair and you can’t make it right for your kids. Someone else has to.
My sweet 12-year-old boy came into my office with his head hanging down. He is taller than I and his hair hangs way past his shoulders. It’s so long that I only know for sure his eyes are open because he is not walking into walls.
Still, usually, his head is held high. But this day it wasn’t. Underneath all that hair, my son was crying. “What is it?” I said, jumping from my chair. “Are you OK?”
“Nothing. I’m fine,” he said. “Nothing is wrong.”
My arms were around him. Give him time and space, I thought. You have to respect that a young adolescent needs to tell you things according to his or her timetable. Eventually, if you back off, he will come to you. Be open. Be present. Be patient. This is the best course of action. Best, maybe, but the patience thing—it’s not my strength.
“It can’t be nothing. What is wrong? What is it?”
“She said I was stealing a drink,” he said. “She told me to get out of the store and then the police...”
“THE POLICE? What were the police doing there? WHAT HAPPENED?”
“Jeez, Mom, I’m trying. Will you calm down?” In an instant, his tears stopped. I love the way they turn on a dime at this age. He was in control and eager to tell me I was out of control. “I’m sorry, dear. I’ll calm down. Now, go back to that police part.”
“I went to the White Hen to get a drink. And I was going to get a Diet Vanilla Coke and after I got it from the cooler, I was going to head over to get a Slim Jim. But I said, ‘You know what? I’d rather get a Sprite.’ And when I was turning around to get the Sprite, I made eye contact with the owner. Then, I walked back to the cooler. And she started yelling at me. She said I was trying to steal a drink and she told me to get out.”
“Could you get to the police part, dear? Did she call the police?”
“No, there was a policewoman in the store. And she told me I should leave.”
I looked at my second son, my dear baby. He is a sensitive soul. He could steal your heart, but steal a can of pop? What was that woman thinking?
“Her assumption was that here is a teenage kid, he’s a punk and all he is there for is to get what he wants,” Theresa Thorkildsen, associate professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said after I explained the White Hen affair to her.
Thorkildsen teaches a course on the characteristics of early adolescence. She studies and talks to middle schoolers. “I’ve asked many kids, ‘What do adults think about kids your age?’ And to a letter, they have all answered the same: ‘They think we are all lazy and they think we are crooks.’ An awful lot of kids feel misjudged by people who stereotype the age group,” Thorkildsen said.
“Middle school is a time, especially for boys, that they are very unaware that their bodies make them look more like young adults than children. They are getting strong. And they don’t realize it and they don’t realize that they can create anxiety in adults.”
My son told me, “I felt really mad. She kicked me out for no reason. It was not one bit fair.”
And fairness is something these kids are sorting out at this “critical period of brain development,” according to Thorkildsen.
Young adolescents are working on who they are, who they will be. “Individualization” and “specialization” are the technical terms. But as they are sorting this out, as well as trying to understand reasoning and fairness, their body and their brain are not cooperating. While their brain is trying to sort out how they fit into the world, they often don’t even fit into their own bodies.
When I look at my boy, it is clear: These days, he and his friends look more like young men than little boys. They play tough at school. But just try a sleepover without the woobie-blanket.
That day, he held my hand as we walked back to the store. “We are just going to talk, dear. And no matter what, we won’t get mad. But we have to let her know what she did is wrong.”
The police car was still in the lot. I asked the officer if she knew what was going on. “No,” she said. She came in when the clerk was yelling at my son and thought it better he leave. She saw nothing more.
Thorkildsen says tweens just need to know they are heard. This clerk heard nothing. I walked in, asked her what happened with my son. She started yelling, “He is a thief! I know what he was thinking.”
I promised no anger. So I resorted to guilt. “Do you feel proud you made a little boy cry?” But she was not buying it. She kept yelling as we walked out.
I wanted to scream, “This is so unfair.” But he didn’t need to hear it from his mother. The charge was being leveled against my boy by an unjust world and he needed a cosmic apology.
As we walked out of the store, the Oak Park officer signaled us. Great, I thought, he doesn’t need more grief from an adult.
We walked over and my son’s head was low. She looked straight at him, through all that hair.
“The same thing happened to me when I was your age and it feels lousy,” the officer said. “She has the right to kick you out, but you have the right to vote with your money.”
I wanted to throw my arms around this woman. I looked over at my son. He was standing taller.
“I didn’t do anything,” he said.
“You know,” the officer said, looking at this almost young man, “sometimes it just isn’t fair.”