Almost daily we hear stories about kids being bullied. Sadly, it has become almost a norm of our society. I hear people all the time ask the question, “What’s wrong with kids these days?” I could probably write a post simply on my own thoughts on that topic, but I will spare you for now.
Over the past few months, however, I have been witness to some wonderful acts of kindness shown by kids that I want to share with you today as a reminder not only that kindness still exists, but to also point out that some acts of simple kindness require bravery and as adults we can play a role in supporting kids to feel brave enough to be kind.
My oldest daughter, Lydia, knows all too well what it’s like to be bullied. She’s smart, beautiful, athletic, and freakishly talented artistically, but she’s also painfully shy which has made her a sitting duck to be picked on and has caused her self-esteem and self-confidence to take a serious hit over the years. We moved here the summer before she started school so unlike the other kids who showed up that first day of school with tons of daycare friends she found herself on the outside and alone. Not much has changed over the years. She doesn’t have a lot of friends so much of her time at school is spent on the outside looking in wishing to be part of a larger group, but stuck on the sidelines feeling invisible, unwelcomed, and too shy to infiltrate. As a parent it has been heartbreaking to watch.
In December, she decided to try out for a competitive volleyball team. She had done after-school recreational volleyball the year before and her coach had sent a message saying she should try out for this team because she had shown great promise as a player. So, Lydia decided to try out with the expectation she’d make the skills development team as only 10 would be selected to play competitively. I wish I could adequately describe the look on her face when she was informed she had made the competition team. It was extreme shock, followed by total elation, followed by absolute terror when she looked at the other names on the list and realized that she was the only grade 6 to make the team which would also consist of one grade seven and a pile of grade eights. Not only was she the youngest on the team, but she didn’t really know any of the older kids. She knew a few to see them around and one lives down the street from us, but generally speaking she was going to be on her own…again.
It’s hard to say who was dreading her first tournament, an overnight, more – me or her. But it was alright. I think we may have underestimated her teammates. They knew she was young. They knew she was new. They knew she was scared. Before her first game when she struggled with her hair one of her older teammates was quick to come and help her with a great big reassuring smile. When they saw her sitting alone with me away from the rest of the team they came and got her and took her to sit with them. She sat a few feet away and didn’t speak a word to them, but she was there with them all the same. I don’t think they have any concept of what such a simple gesture meant to her (and me for that matter). When she was on the court they cheered for her loudly and reassuringly and when the tournament was over and she went and checked her Facebook account pretty much all of them had issued friend requests. This group of older girls had made a true and genuine effort to make this little elementary school kid feel like she was part of their team. And they continued to do these simple little things all season at every tournament, and with each tournament the gap between her and where her teammates were sitting grew smaller and smaller until there was no gap at all and a miracle happened – she talked to them. Simple acts of kindness shown by junior high school girls.
My youngest daughter, Catherine, who is ten made a competitive badminton team this year. She and a few other little girls from across the province were the new kids on the provincial badminton circuit playing in the U12 age division and it didn’t take long for a bit of a rivalry to start between them as they battled it out for medals. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of friendly rivalry, but after a few tournaments and close matches the rivalry become a little less than friendly. At provincials it was pretty much a given the two teams would be duking it out at some point to determine who would move on to compete in the final and it was going to be a nail-biter of a game.
The night before their game, following the singles event, we had returned to our hotel and my kids, along with several of the members of my daughters’ club, went for a swim in the pool. Then, one of my daughter’s rivals arrived with her mom. I watched her hesitantly enter the pool while her mom sat at a table not too far from her. I also watched as this little girl hovered in the water alone, constantly looking over at the larger group of kids all playing together. I could see Catherine looking over at her and I could tell what she was thinking. I waited to see if she would muster up the courage to go talk to this rival enemy of hers, but she didn’t. Meanwhile, I watched the mom of the other girl and could see that look on her face that I’m sure others have seen on mine time and time again. That look of tension that appears like instinct when your child is on the outside looking in wanting so badly to be included, but they aren’t.
So, I intervened. I walked across the pool to Catherine, pulled her aside, and suggested that maybe it would be nice if she invited that little girl to play with them. I should probably mention that Catherine is also a very shy child, but despite that she slowly started to move away from the larger group and closer to the girl, though it took a while and required lots of reassuring smiles and nods from me. It was obvious she was nervous. Finally, she asked the girl if she wanted to come and play with them and was greeted with a huge smile. I could see Catherine just beam with pride. She introduced her to the players from her club and they all resumed their game together. I could see the mom’s shoulders drop and relax.
Meanwhile, I had noticed someone at the door trying to get into the pool area but their card wasn’t working so I got up to let them in. On my way back, the little girl’s mom stopped me in my tracks, grabbed a chair, and insist that I join her. By the time we left the pool that evening both my daughter and I had made new friends and the next day as they played their match the difference was evident. They smiled, they praised each other’s good shots, they had fun. It didn’t seem to even matter who won though my daughter and her partner went on to win that match and moved on to eventually bring home the silver medal and move on to Atlantics.
The little girl wasn’t at Atlantics, but her partner was because she had older siblings playing. One afternoon between events we could see her wondering around looking sad, miserable, and bored. It’s not much fun to be stuck in a gym for a weekend and not get to play. I could see Catherine get that look again and she made a comment about the girl not looking very happy. I suggested that she go ask her to rally for a while on an empty court, but the girl had already walked out of the gym. I suggested that Catherine go find her. She couldn’t be too far off. So off Catherine went. A few minutes later my husband and I watched as that little girl came rushing back into the gym with a huge smile on her face and off these two rivals went to start rallying and, more importantly, developing their new friendship. Later that night at the banquet for all players, about 180 in total, Catherine was awarded the Yonex True Sport Fair Play Award for outstanding sportsmanship.
I know some people reading this will be wondering why I’m making such a big deal about such simple gestures. I guess it’s just that I know how hard it can be for a child to walk away from the safety of a large group to ask someone on the sidelines to join in. I think it is especially hard when that kid you’ve decided to include is younger, or less popular, or is someone you think doesn’t like you. It involves taking risks and that can be scary not just for kids, but for adults as well. I think it’s our job as adults to support them to be kind, to model the behaviours ourselves, and remind them of the rewards that come with making new friends.
Personally, I’m looking forward to watching all of these kids grow up and seeing how their friendships develop over time. I’m also looking forward to having that new friend of mine on the sidelines watching the very same thing.