A few years ago while at , a boy squashed a spider in front of my then 4-year-old son, Justin.
I watched Justin’s eyes grow big in horror and heard him yell, “You can’t do that!” His eyes filled with tears, and he ran into my arms.
I hugged him and held my tongue. What could I say?
I was speechless. I wanted to nurture Justin’s sensitive side and celebrate his ability to empathize with another living creature. I wanted to yell at that big, mean 7-year-old for his heinous act. I wanted to warn my son that he has to learn to deal with death and trauma and suffering, because it is a part of life, and he can’t let it take him down.
I also wanted to laugh, because the whole thing felt a bit over the top.
Truth be told, I don’t remember exactly what I said or did. I hope that I supported him and gave him the space he needed to be sad. I hope I didn’t encourage him to linger in his despair but instead offered him opportunities to move on. I hope I helped him to “suck it up” without ever actually saying the words “suck it up.”
The spider incident taught me how complicated the goal of raising a strong and sensitive boy would prove to be. I have found myself trying to find a comfortable middle ground between, “If you want something to cry about, I’ll give you something to cry about,” and, “Come, let’s cry together for days while we drown our sorrows in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.” It turns out, as uncomfortable and ineffective as these extreme approaches sound, the middle ground isn’t always comfortable, either.
The middle ground is the place where I don’t hide my own tears from my son. I allow him to see my sensitivity so that he can be less embarrassed by his own. It is the place where I cry after I learn that my friend’s baby has cancer. That day he discovered me alone in my room, lying on my bed, tears streaming down my face.
Against my first impulse, I don't wipe my eyes and pretend to have allergies. I tell him the truth when he asks what’s wrong. He hugs me. He strokes my hair and says softly, “Let me know when you are done being sad and want to play Monopoly.” It is the place where he leaves the room and closes the door gently behind him.
The middle ground is the place where I don’t storm into the principal's office at my son’s school and demand that something be done about Justin getting picked on at recess. It's the place where I know he has to learn to be strong and brave on the playground.
So I resist the urge to show up at every recess and follow my boy around so I can be there “just in case.” It is the place where Justin and I talk over an afternoon snack about ways to stay safe and what to do if someone is using unkind words. It’s the place where we talk about how it feels to have people make fun of you. We acknowledge that, like sticks and stones, words can hurt.
The middle ground is also the place where I encourage Justin to be more patient and kind to his 2-year-old cousin, who does nothing but mess up his Legos and try to hug him too hard and too often.
In the middle ground, my son learns to recognize his own insensitivities without shame. They exist within all of us, and we can choose to behave with or without compassion. He learns to set boundaries without being hurtful. “Kaylee! Do NOT touch my Legos!” is being replaced with “Here Kaylee, you can play with this squishy yellow ball.” (Sometimes.)
It is somewhere in the middle ground that I hope my son cultivates both his vulnerability and his strength. It is the place where he learns to choose whether to cry or pull it together and then act accordingly. It is the place where he learns to choose how to treat others and decides to treat them well.
In this muddy middle ground, he can be sad, scared and fragile. He can stand tall, be proud and be brave. He can allow all of this to exist inside at once without explanation or apology.
And then, standing in this quiet and gentle strength, I hope he can choose to keep his heart open, even when it becomes easier to close it up.