Wendy James is the Australian author of latest release The Golden Child, a story that grapples with modern-day spectres of selfies, selfishness and cyberbullying. It plays with our fears of parenting, social media and Queen Bees, and asks the question: just how well do you know your child?
Have a read of some of Wendy James’ views on judging the mothers of bullies:
I take a look at the woman, turn away quickly before she notices. ‘I’ve seen her around,’ I say to my friend, ‘but I don’t actually know her.’ The woman is vaguely familiar, perhaps I’ve seen her in the playground or at school concerts, but we don’t have any specific connections, and I don’t know her name.
‘No. I don’t know her either. No one does. The family just moved here last term. Well, if she’s anything like her daughter, she must be a monster.’
I risk another surreptitious glance. The woman doesn’t look like a monster. She looks pretty ordinary – she’s youngish, younger than my friend and me, anyway; maybe in her early thirties, sporty-looking, wearing gym shorts and a singlet top, joggers. She’s smiling down at a little girl, seven, maybe eight, who’s telling her something, hopping about, clearly excited.
‘Is that the girl?’ The girl, a cherub of a child, with curly blonde hair and dimpled cheeks, looks far too young to be capable of wreaking the emotional havoc that my friend has just been telling me about.
My friend sees my expression, snorts. ‘Don’t be deceived,’ she hisses. ‘She might look like a little angel, but she’s a bloody miniature psychopath.’
According to my friend, this adorable Shirley Temple look-alike is one mean little miss, subjecting my friend’s seven-year-old daughter (who has had the bad luck to be seated next to her in class) to all manner of nastiness – stealing precious possessions ( pencils, rubbers), and bestowing sneaky pinches – her daughter had little bruises all up the inside of her forearm.
‘What kind of seven-year-old does that?’
I agree. The girl is clearly a bully.
My friend has spoken to the teacher, who seemed surprised, and not quite convinced.
‘Miranda’s bullying her? Are you sure? They seem to get on quite well from what I can see.’
Regardless, she’s promised to keep an eye out in the classroom. But of course there’s still the playground, where teachers’ eyes can miss a lot.
My friend gives the mother one last hard stare, a glare really, as the woman, oblivious to our scrutiny, takes her daughter’s hand and heads towards the gate. ‘It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?’ she says, sighing, ‘I mean, how does a kid end up like that? What sort of a mother is she?’
What sort of a mother is she? I guess it’s the kind of hastily judgemental question we’ve all asked at various times. Usually it’s directed at the mothers of kids we perceive (wrongly or rightly) to be suffering in some way, or who come to school showing obvious signs of neglect. But occasionally the question arises because of the child’s own behaviour: those kids who are disruptive, troublemakers; who are too physical, or naughty, or mean. If a kid behaves badly we tend to question their upbringing, and too often it’s the mothers who we judge most severely. The sins of the father might be visited upon the child; but the sins of the child – they seem to belong to the mother.
From the moment our children are born, most of us spend a vast amount of time trying to teach our kids, often by example, how to be: how to sleep, eat, talk, walk, to read. How to be resilient, resourceful, successful, hard-working, happy. How to be kind and considerate. How to be good. We also (mothers especially) spend a great deal of time thinking (okay, agonising) about whether we’re doing a good job: whether we’re actually making a difference. And for most of us, most of the time, it seems that we are.
But what happens when all that parental effort isn’t reflected in the ‘outcome’? We all know that bad people – or people who do bad things – don’t always have neglectful, or even indifferent, parents. And some, like Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, come from the most conscientiously loving of homes. Sue Klebold knew that her son had some minor social and academic troubles, but she had no idea that he was preparing to carry out one of the most horrifying school shootings in history. When I read Klebold’s heartbreaking memoir – A Mother’s Reckoning – it was clear that she would be paying for her son’s actions for the rest of her life; that she was destined to suffer guilt and grief in equal measure – endlessly. But what was also clear was that she was a good woman, a mother who had tried, and was still trying, to do her best. She was no monster.
Nor, it turns out, was the woman in the playground. My friend called me the following day to tell me that the other girl’s mother had also complained to the teacher: her daughter had a trail of little bruises up her forearm, too. ‘Apparently it was just this dumb game they’d invented – they could pinch each other every time they borrowed a pencil without asking. And it was my bloody fault – I’d been laughing about the way my mum used to pinch us under the arm when we were kids …’ She’d ended up calling the other mother and apologising; they were having coffee next week.
Just what sort of a mother is she? The thing is, when it comes to our kids, we can do everything right, and things can still go wrong. There are no guarantees. Any one of us could find ourselves on the other side of that question, regardless of our hard work, our good intentions.
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