There are a lot of F-words, aren’t there?
The big one, that earned Ralphie a snack of Lifebuoy soap in A Christmas Story.
The one discussed on this very blog at an earlier date.
And one more: the three-letter one.
A few months ago, I took my child to a theme park. It started as, quite literally, the perfect trip. The weather was glorious – a surprisingly cool and overcast day. Crowds were nonexistent. We had the run of the park and we enjoyed it so much. Sam is old enough that he can go on every ride by himself if he chooses. And in cases of shorter lines, where I have full visibility, he can even wait on his own. It’s a badge of independence. And, he cherishes that freedom.
He wanted to go on a horse-themed ride. There were maybe five kids waiting, so I sent him off and took up my post at the exit. I watched him as he waited his turn, and took the obligatory photo as he gave me the thumbs up when he passed me.
I heard him say “thank you” to the employee who held the exit gate for him and he hurried up to me. I wanted to hear all about it, and I wasn’t expecting the first words out of his mouth.
“Mom. The kid in front of me in line said I was fat.”
Of course, I immediately asked what kid, but this was a single-loading ride and the child was long gone. Turns out, Sam walked to his place in the queue, and said hello to the person in front of him, only to have that child say “You’re fat.” Not once, but twice. As if that’s an acceptable way to greet someone. As if it matters at all.
Sam was quiet. There were tears in his eyes. He said, “It really hurt my feelings.”
How can such a small word hurt so much?
Why does such a meaningless descriptor cut so deep?
When I asked him how he responded, Sam said he just ignored the kid.
I sat him down in the middle of that theme park and told him that kid wasn’t a nice person. That no one ever needs to say mean things to other people, especially people they don’t even know. That Sam is a sweet person with a kind heart, and sticks and stones may break bones but names will never hurt and a thousand other things to salve the wound.
But the lingering lash of the word stuck with him, casting a cloud over what should have been a fun couple of theme park days. To this day, he just doesn’t understand why kids are mean. It’s an innocence we love about him but will leave him vulnerable to all kinds of hurt in years to come as he navigates middle school and beyond.
And in these moments, I recognize all my inadequacies as a mother. I can’t control what others are going to say to him. Or, how others will choose to treat him. I can only teach him to hold his head high and continue being who he is.
I thought a lot about how to write this. I found myself getting really defensive as if Sam’s appearance is something to explain or justify. It’s not. Because there’s not a darn thing to justify. He is a tall, solid, healthy child. It’s the way he was born and the way he will continue to be. He can no more change his body type than he can his skin color, and quite frankly, neither his father nor I (nor anyone who loves him) would want him any other way.
This is what I will tell you about Sam.
He is kind. He is sweet. He is respectful and thoughtful and helpful.
He is bright and curious and confident.
He has earned an advanced belt in karate (and he volunteers to help out with the younger kids in his dojo), and is a two-time triathlete, and even more important, he exhibits good sportsmanship and understands how to win and lose gracefully.
For every year of elementary school, his peers have voted for him to win character awards for trustworthiness, responsibility, caring and respect. His teacher gave him the kindness award at the end of this past academic year.
He stands up for others and knows right from wrong.
He is good to younger children and gentle with animals.
He has the most infectious laugh I have ever heard.
No three-letter f-word will ever take any of that away from him.
When that child called him fat, Sam didn’t retort with an insult in kind or get physical. He chose the high road and ignored, which took the power away from his tormentor. It was the right thing to do, but it didn’t lessen the sting or take away the doubt this child inserted into Sam’s mind.
As Sam gets older, his weight will fluctuate. He will gain and he will lose. He will grow, as do we all. And whether at a high or a low, that number on the scale will remain the least of who he is.
Everybody is different.
Every body is different.
And what’s on the inside is the thing that matters most.