The Niceness Crisis

homeless-1213053_1280The second week of school, I found my khaki-short, polo-shirt-wearing second grader having a nervous breakdown getting dressed.

“I hate my clothes! They’re so stupid!” He stomped around the room like a scorned elephant before collapsing into a crumpled heap of tears on the floor.

It took me a few weeks and a shopping trip for new clothes before he finally opened up to me, but the truth eventually came out. My son was being teased by other kids because of his wardrobe. And I was pissed. The Mama Bear in me instinctively wanted to shake the names of those children from my son, don a ski mask, and sit outside these awful bullies’ homes with a Super Soaker and waterboard the little jerks until they were on their knees begging for mercy.

But I channeled my grown-up self. I gave him a pep talk about how sometimes people say mean things. I told him that the mean things people say aren’t necessarily true. I told him he was handsome and special and destined to do great things no matter what he wears, and that no one can change the awesomeness inside of him.

I don’t think he believed me. And when I look at the world we’re living in today, I don’t really blame him. We have presidential candidates engaging in a campaign of childish name calling reminiscent of a WWE wrestling match. We have mothers tearing down other mothers over bottle or breast. We have fathers getting in fistfights at soccer games. We have PTA presidents getting framed for drug possession by angry parents. Everywhere I look, I see a judgmental, narcissistic, hate-infused shitshow.

So why are we so mean to each other? Are we a society of mean parents raising mean children? Are human beings automatically wired to tear down the people around us? Are some people naturally good and some evil? From Freud to Milgram, psychologists have spent ample time trying to determine the motivations of meanness. There are a lot of different theories – jealousy, low self-esteem, projection – that totally make sense, but I refuse to believe that we can’t do better. I refuse to believe that if we all made a conscious effort to be just a little nicer, it wouldn’t turn into a snowball effect of greatness.

My heart breaks for my son, who suddenly hates second grade because of a handful of 7- year-old fashion critics. My heart breaks for all of the kids that have to go to school every day and withstand ridicule and snide remarks over petty nonsense. I wish I could honestly tell him it will get better when he becomes an adult, but these days, I’m not so sure. So for now, I’ll do my best to empower my children, to give them the skills to cope and prosper in what seems to be an increasingly cruel world. But I’m still scared as hell. Because I have a feeling it’s only going to get worse.