Finding the Center

Finding the Center


By Dawn Erickson

“Let’s go to the swamp,” my son says. It’s not really in today’s plans but we go. We walk the railroad grade from our house to where it crosses a small seasonal creek. Here we slip off the grade and follow the creek to the swamp and eventually the park.

The swamp itself is some twenty acres of wetlands. Each time we visit we find some new thicket or channeled water to explore.  My son likes to leap from one grassy hummock to another, seeing who can make the most daring-crazy jump, seeing how far we can get into the heart of the swamp. We find that crossing atop beaver dams are good, and though we see blue herons, and kingfishers, eagles and salmon and big green tree frogs, we never see beavers.

On this day I tell my son not to expect much. It’s only just stopped raining and when I last walked by the swamp was more a river, with a mighty current. So I’m surprised we can go as deeply into the swamp as we do. My son leaps and jumps. Our dog leaps and jumps. We shimmy across narrow logs over deep clear water, or pools of muddy water, or water covered in a thick green slime. We watch the dog leap into water that leaves a luminous green sheen across her back, even after she shakes. It’s fun, my son says, to watch the dog run around. It is here while we are bumping along and laughing at the dog, that my son tells me about the party.

“There is a party today,” he says, as if talking up to some tree or a blank piece of sky.

“Oh?”  I say.

“I wasn’t invited,” he says. It’s not like he doesn’t get invited to parties. He is mostly well liked. Usually I’m surprised at how easily things roll off him, how he doesn’t get upset about slights or meanness. He is much more forgiving and patient than I am—more willing to think the best of people.

“Whose birthday is it?” I ask, but he doesn’t answer.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry you didn’t get invited.” He shrugs his shoulder and says from across a small channel of water,  “It’s probably like his mom said ,he could only invite a few kids or something.”

“Yeah” I say. “It’s probably like that. It’s hard you know, you can’t invite everyone.” When I look there are tears in his eyes that I pretend not to see. “It must hurt though. It would make me sad.”

I want to hug him but I know he’ll pull away. So we talk more, from across the channel, about his birthday party and did he invite this boy. He did not. I remind him that it’s hard to know who to invite and we can only hope that people understand that you can’t always invite everyone.

It seems a small thing, a kid not invited to a birthday party. But I see the flash of pain pass across my son’s face. I know that ache. I know the pain of not belonging. It is real and universal. Whoever we are, whatever our age, exclusion hurts.

The swamp is actually a series of beaver dams but it is rare to actually see or even hear a beaver. And the dams themselves are grown over with grasses. Many times we think the beavers have moved on, but then we’ll see a fresh fallen tree or a stump carved clean.We find sticks gnawed and chiseled so smooth we take them home and place on our mantel above the fireplace. When I look down today I realize we’re walking on one of the old beaver dams. A long solid one covered over in a thick grass, except in places where the recent high water has eaten away the grasses and exposed a mishmash of sticks and mud waddle.

Many Native American cultures call beavers, or the habitat they create, the “sacred center of the earth.” Their dam building creates a place where life can flourish in all its extravagant diversity, the pools they create are a haven difficult for predators to reach and do harm. But more than that, wetlands are a place of repair and restoration. It is the beavers that set things right again, beavers that create or mend the center, create a place for the living to become strong.

I think of how the beavers protect themselves. How I come to this place because it offers me protection, it is home. The blackbirds and herons and beavers, are all reminiscence of my childhood home in the Midwest, the places near our house I would ride a bike to and hang out for an afternoon reading or sorting things out in my head, especially the mean girl middle school years, the years that loom straight ahead for my son. Those mean girl years stung, and still do. I’m still loath to admit the bullying and ostracizing that took place years ago. I feel a shame creep in, as if I deserved whatever was dished out, that what they said was true, all of it. It’s taken me twenty years of adulthood to recognize cruelty for what it is, to know it and name it, to take action against it.

That’s what I’m thinking when I realize the dog is running back and forth across the top of the dam, tearing into a big hump of mud. “It’s a beaver lodge!” my son yells. The dog jumps in the water, her muddied body disappearing underneath the mud and sticks.

“Look, look, look!” my son cries. He grabs me and nearly pulls me into the water as we teeter on the little narrow strip of beaver dam we stand on. I don’t look, instead I try to push my way past him to stop the dog, to put a leash on her and pull her away from the lodge, if it is one.

“IT’S A BEAVER!” he says, “LOOK!” And I look because he won’t let me past. My son has never seen a beaver before.

A stick is moving rather unnaturally. “There, see that stick?” my son says. “The beaver is doing that.” Then I see the beaver under the water’s surface. He glides silent and graceful, swims all the way across the pond before curling into some cubby hole we can’t see. We just see the brown and what we are sure is a wide flat tail.

My son walks toward the dog, calling her name now. It takes the two of us to pull her away from the water and get the leash on. Getting back across the dam isn’t easy. But we do and are relieved to see there is not much damage done and we start back home.

When we come up from the swamp and onto the railroad grade boys are running about off in the distance. It turns out the birthday party is at the neighbors. “Oh,” I say to my son. “Is this the birthday party, here at the neighbor’s house?  There are shouts and laughter and moms calling from up on the hill. Now I understand they must have all been talking about the party at school and on the bus ride home. The boys stand with their Nerf guns, shout back and forth, and run in and out of the trees. My son first tries to slow his pace and head back into the swamp, but when they leave he decides to speed up and try to say hello. But the boys go back into the trees and we guess up the hill.

“They probably went up for cake,” my son says. The kids are mostly younger kids and mostly all on the same basketball team but even though I know there’s no real reason he should have been invited, I know we both feel a little like outsiders.

And I know these boys aren’t bad kids; their parents aren’t unkind. They’re not bullies or and this is not all my fault or anyone’s fault, because there is no fault to be had here. It’s just another birthday and there will be other parties. There will be friends that come and go, and friends that might be there forever. There will be times my son is included and times he’s not, and there will be times he’s inclusive and times he’s not. But I fear these middle school years. I fear what my son might suffer. I fear the ways he’ll be influenced by his peers, that he’ll stop talking with me, that he’ll be bullied or bully. I want him to be strong yet compassionate. To be able to stand up to bullies, to say no when needed.

I do admire the beavers. I admire the way they protect themselves, the way they create so much for those around them while keeping themselves safe. And I like that I seek out marshes and wetlands where beavers live. I like that my son wanted to go here today, that it was here that he was able to say what was on his mind, that we could talk.

Maybe there is a reason we like it here. Maybe there is a lesson to learn. Maybe if we cross enough dams, or wander deep enough we might stumble upon an insight or two, get some ideas about creating our own place to flourish.

Author’s note: I sometimes think my husband and I spend too much time dragging our son from trail to trail, exploring and investigating cool spots or pretty places. But then these conversations happen and I realize this is where we all feel most comfortable and maybe that’s a good thing.

Dawn Erickson lives in a small town in the North Cascades Mountains of Washington State. She once made a living fixing trails for the US Forest Service before deciding to write about life with her husband and son. She has written for Literary Mama and Wanderlust and Lipstick. You can read more of her writing at







Why I Have Never Cut My Daughter’s Hair

Why I Have Never Cut My Daughter’s Hair

By Lela Casey


I resigned myself to the fact that, without that ginger gene, I was just going to have to accept a life of passivity.


I was the kind of girl who could usually be found tucked away in a corner with a book, my long dark hair hanging over my face, an impenetrable wall of protection against the world.

Books weren’t entertainment for me. They were friends and lovers and mysterious rabbit holes. They were a way to escape the almost impossible task of socializing with my peers. They were a validation that being “weird” or “different” was OK, and perhaps even necessary to leading a novel-worthy life.

Literature was so entwined with my childhood that I often have trouble separating my own memories from the stories I read long into the night.

There were many characters that captured my heart. Sarah Crewe from A Little Princess, Prince Dolor from The Little Lame Prince, Sara Louise from Jacob Have I Loved, Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time, and so many others.

And then, when I was ten years old I discovered Anne of Green Gables and nothing would ever be the same. Like me, Anne loved to read and had a magnificent imagination. But, Anne had something else. Something I thought I never would possess. FIRE!

She was strong and passionate and no one, not even the boy she was so obviously in love with, could diminish her flame.

I didn’t just love Anne Shirley, I wanted to BE Anne Shirley. After reading the entire series of books over a few weeks I convinced myself that I, too, could be brave. So, I mustered up all my courage to try using a bigger voice and standing up to the many bullies who ate shy bookish girls for breakfast.

But, my soft voice cracked and those bullies were relentless and finally I had to admit to myself that I just didn’t have that fire.

Where did it come from then? Was bravery inherited? Developed? Earned?

I thought about the people who I knew who were fiery….. both in literature and in real life. A pattern began to emerge. Pippie Longstocking, Annie, my cousin from Israel… Red heads, every one of them.

I resigned myself to the fact that, without that ginger gene, I was just going to have to accept a life of passivity.

The years went by. I did eventually grow my soft voice into, if not a fierce one, at least a confident one. I learned to stand up for myself. I developed passions. I stopped hiding behind books. I became a mother of a bright, enthusiastic little boy,

One day another mother at the park falsely accused my 3-year-old son of taking her daughter’s toy. She ripped the toy from his hand and yelled angrily. Without a moment’s hesitation, I marched up to her, looked her right in the eye and demanded that she back off.

The voice that came out of my mouth that day shocked me. Looking at my little boy’s scared face, realizing it was my job to protect him, allowed me to finally overcome my genetic deficiency and be brave without having red hair.

Around the time I started to feel this fieriness developing inside of me I became pregnant with my third child. I was already a mother of two little boys and I couldn’t even let myself dream that this (my final child) could be a girl.

Seeing my daughter may have been the most powerful moment of my life. Not only was she the most perfect, most beautiful, most girliest creature, but from the top of her head rose one glorious red curl.

My daughter is 6 years old now. Her long auburn hair hangs well below her waist. She is sweet and smart and fiery … oh lord is she fiery! Sometimes I look at her and wonder if she is the manifestation of all the passion of my recent years, or perhaps the product of a genetic shift that came from my reading Anne of Green Gables so frequently.

Whatever the cause of her spirited nature, it absolutely delights me. She has already won all the battles I was too afraid to fight, earned respect from all the bullies I was too timid to stand up to, and demanded all the rights I never would have dreamed of asking for.

She is my very own Anne Shirley.

Managing a 6-year-old’s long hair is not easy. Especially one who loves to roll in dry leaves, dance in mud puddles, and burrow head first into the sand. We have long emotional battles every time a hair washing is imminent. But, each time I mention so much as a little trim, she melts down into angry tears.

“You CAN’T cut it. My hair is wild like me, Mama. It matches my insides.”

Lela Casey was raised by a fiery Israeli mother and an all American father on a farm which often doubled as a resting place for foreign travelers and families in need. Her unconventional childhood has had a great impact on her parenting and her writing. She is a regular contributing writer at She has also written for, femininecollective,com, and


Dear Diary, What Ever Happened To Having Crushes?

Dear Diary, What Ever Happened To Having Crushes?

By Francie Arenson Dickman


You know you are old when you think all of the boys in your daughters’ 8th grade class look adorable.

“Are you crazy?” my girls say as I mention this to them as we wait in the drop off line which moves at a snail’s pace, leaving me plenty of time to study the student body.

“Don’t you think anyone is cute?” I ask. They roll their eyes and run out of the car. I don’t blame them, I remember having similar exchanges with my mother who was also obviously old because she, too, used to think all the boys in my grade were adorable. The difference between my kids and me was that I could laundry list a slew of guys that were in fact cute, while my daughters, now fourteen, cannot.

“You’ve got to have a crush on someone,” I said to my daughter last year. We’d just watched the movie The Duff and my big take away was that the boy next door was no ordinary boy next door. “I didn’t notice,” my daughter said.

“That’s impossible,” I argued back. “You are thirteen,” I told her. “That’s what girls do when they are thirteen, they have crushes.”

She shrugged. “Maybe I’m a lesbian.”

“That’s no excuse,” I told her. “Even if you were a lesbian, you’d have crushes, they’d just be on girls.”

She shrugged again. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

Before I wrote this essay, I researched—meaning I talked to friends with daughters around my kids’ age. Most said that their daughters had no interest in boys, either. They were too busy with school work and extracurricular activities. This is the same thing my girls tell me when I ask, and I do ask because I’ve got to be honest, I’m just not buying it. Liking boys is not a business decision. Liking boys (or girls) is hormonal. Crushes just happen. Like acne.

Who among us didn’t love David Cassidy or Rick Springfield or the entire cast of The Outsiders? We did, and we had Teen Beat posters to prove it. For the personal crushes we had diaries. Or at least, I did. My mother gave me a diary in 6th grade when I was being bullied, and a few months ago, I shared it with my daughters. I don’t know where I got the brilliant idea that by reading their mother’s first-hand account of her year dealing with mean girls that they would come away more enlightened than they already were from having heard my stories ad nauseam. I’ve shared the stories despite that my girls, to my knowledge, never have been bullied and never have been the bullying kind. Until of course, I shared my diary. Then they began to bully me.

“I wasn’t boy crazy,” I told them, grabbing the diary from their hands.

The truth is that I should have read the diary to myself before I read it to them because there was a remarkable dearth of material on girls. Maybe a line here and there about my daily existence, like “Lisa was mean again today.” But for the most part, the pages were littered with charts ranking my favorite boys on a scale of one to five and hearts with initials in it. You know, the kind that we all used to doodle.

“You were weird,” they told me. Not only do girls these days, at least the ones in my house, not have crushes but they don’t doodle, either. I’ve leafed through the pages of assignment notebooks looking for signs of crushes, only to come up empty handed. The diaries I’d bought them, in preparation to start journaling when the bullying and crushes began, are empty. Their walls hold no posters. Their bulletin boards are collaged in pictures, all of girls. Girls hugging. Girls piled in photo booths. Their worlds are raining girls. There are the school girls, the camp girls, the dance girls. Not that I wish it were different! I’m so grateful that my girls have girls. That they have spent years learning to be a good friend, understanding how to have female relationships. Nonetheless, shouldn’t there be some boys? If not in body than at least in initials penciled on the side of sneakers? Or maybe these days kids’ personal lives, their secrets and representations of their inner selves are buried down deep within their smartphones instead of their diaries, making it impossible for people who don’t Snapchat (otherwise known as parents) to get a picture of who they are. Or maybe, as hard as it is for me to believe, they really are just too busy.  

I don’t know where I got the notion that my daughters’ teenage experiences would mirror mine, and I’d be able to turn my childhood lemons into lemonade by dispensing relatable advice in a way that my own mother, who never proclaimed to relate, could not. But sure enough, time, as it tends to do, has created gaps between my middle school days and my daughters’, making not just my diary but my thoughts on how girls and boys should relate, outdated. According to my “research,” the trend among high schoolers these days is to have “hook up” parties, gatherings en masse in basements to fool around. Rumor is, these occur weekend to weekend, and kids switch partners as often as they switch houses. Like musical chairs with sexual favors, which I for one, find horrifying.

I suppose there might have been a time when I would have found it gratifying that young girls would prioritize goals and friends over going out with boys, and I would have believed that they could actually be okay with this free love business. I would have called it feminism and progress, and I would have been proud. But now that the girls are my own, I call it crazy. I can’t help but think that by-passing the harmless crush phase and heading straight for the physical will backfire. I can’t help but think that kids in middle school who don’t have the time to daydream and doodle are getting shortchanged. And, with the same benefit of time and distance that allows me to see all of the boys in the 8th grade class as adorable, I view my own middle school experience, no matter how brutal, as better than my kids’ today. Maybe my mindset makes me old. Or maybe it just makes me a mother.

Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have also appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.


Do Bully Prevention Programs Actually Stop Bullying?

Do Bully Prevention Programs Actually Stop Bullying?

By Susan Buttenwieser

canstockphoto19166591I can still picture it vividly, like it was yesterday. The fifth grade recess routine. Watching the same group of boys pummel the same kid. None of us did anything, didn’t tell a teacher or help him in anyway. Not even when they smashed his head against a radiator.

It was the 1970s, but my experience is still a common occurrence in schoolyards, hallways, bathrooms, cafeterias and classrooms today. Bullying is a serious issue in schools across the country. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls it a public health problem, with one in three students being bullied. Boys are more likely to be physically bullied while girls face emotional bullying.

Students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are particularly susceptible to bullying. According to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) 2013 National School Climate Survey, three-quarters of LGBT students are verbally harassed and over one third are physically harassed because of their sexual orientation; 30% missed at least one day of school in the past month because of feeling uncomfortable or unsafe. Grade point averages for these students are between nine and 15 percent lower than for others.

The negative effects from bullying can last after the taunting, shoving and wedgies have ended, well into adulthood, and even a whole lifetime. Victims are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and suicidal feelings. Childhood bullying is linked to lower educational levels, increased chance of being unemployed and having a lower salary at age 50. And the bullies themselves are at increased risk for substance abuse, academic problems, and violence later in adolescence and adulthood.

But coming up with solutions to this age-old problem has proven to be elusive. Almost every state has a safe school law but very few, if any, are funded. This means schools receive little support on how to implement laws, or the necessary training needed to reduce and prevent bullying. Many of the widely used bullying prevention programs and practices have shown little evidence of effectiveness, and lack substance. Merely putting up posters in school hallways is not nearly enough.

Lack of involvement and support from teachers, school staff and parents adds to the risk of bullying. But sometimes they don’t realize what is going on, even when it’s happening right in front of them. “School personnel often do not fully appreciate how unsafe students feel,” says Jonathan Cohen, president of the National School Climate Center. “In fact, in our assessment of schools nationwide, the single most consistent finding is that the adults in the community—parents and school personnel—view students’ social-emotional safety as much less of an issue than the students themselves report. There are several factors that contribute to this: too often adults label mean, cruel and/or bullying behaviors as normal or kids being kids. Due to this, students vastly under-report instances of bullying to adults, because they do not believe adults will help the situation; and, a significant amount of mean, cruel and bullying behaviors are subtle, and therefore harder to track from an adult perspective.”

But when adults do get involved, it is not always in a helpful way. Many programs are focused on identifying and punishing the bully, and some states mandate that school administrators report bullying to the police. But researchers have found that these “zero-tolerance” programs, where schools rely on law enforcement, suspensions, expulsions, metal detectors and other overly aggressive tactics, don’t work either.

“There are over 15 years of empirical research that underscores the fact that zero tolerance policies hurt. They do not help,” says Cohen. “In fact, we know that restorative practices can have a much more profound effect on student behavior and success over the long-term than punitive-based policies that merely address the instance but not the underlying causes for the behavior.”

And one study found that the students at schools with bullying prevention programs were actually more likely to be bullied than schools without these programs. Researchers posited that bullies were adopting the language from the anti-bullying programs.

A major roadblock is that many anti-bullying programs are centered around the bully and on short-term lessons. They don’t engage all members of the school community, both children and adults, and are not grounded in educational and developmental theory, say the authors of Rethinking Effective Bully and Violence Prevention Efforts.

Instead, positive development of the school community should be fostered rather than a focus on problem prevention. Everyone in that community, including the students, needs to work together to develop a shared vision of the kind of school they want to have. Having an inclusive curriculum is crucial. For example, GLSEN reports that students in schools with an LGBT-inclusive curriculum were less likely to feel unsafe. And a more diverse curriculum where everyone’s history is learned will have benefits that extend far beyond preventing bullying. The more students know about one another, the more cultures and difference are celebrated, the better.

And then of course, there are the witnesses. Bullies need an audience. Effective programs need to motivate them to step in and reach out to an adult. Empower the kids, like ten-year old me, with my jagged bowl haircut and unfashionable bulky parka, standing on the sidelines, trying to avoid making eye contact with anyone, just grateful not be on the receiving end of all those fists, all that hate, to do something.

Susan Buttenwieser’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Teachers & Writers magazine and other publications. She teaches creative writing in New York City public schools and with incarcerated women. 

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Quietly Bleeding: One Mother’s Struggle to Define Violence, Hazing and Bullying

Quietly Bleeding: One Mother’s Struggle to Define Violence, Hazing and Bullying

By Krista Genevieve Farris


There’s a fine line between “peer pressure for play” and negative peer pressure. Is it bullying? Is it a gateway to violence? To hazing?


It’s a punch in the gut that keeps on bleeding, a silent fight with a growing bruise, a game that has already caused trauma and left collateral damage. Your son tells you kids are “bodying” each other in the locker room. And while you’re not sure what “bodying” is, and you know that’s the next question you hope he’ll answer after you gather yourself enough to ask it, you are certain it isn’t something good.

What you do know, because he led with the detail, telling it with a dramatic shake of his head, is that one of the boys ended up with a bloody nose after the bout of “bodying.” His second swing, he adds breathlessly—you’re not allowed to tell anyone. If you tell, he’s certain (and you are too) that there will be retaliation. A good offense is as strong as its defense that’s the lesson he’s learned on the court. Defense is silence beyond this kitchen. But, this isn’t a basketball court, you say. This type of defense won’t stand up in a court of law or to our conscience—a silent defense is internal bleeding.

“What is bodying?” You hope he answers. But, already he’s panicking, the damage has been done—”Don’t tell anyone. Don’t tell my coach. Please don’t call the parents. Promise you won’t tell. Dammit. Promise.”  He’s bellowing now—slamming his fists a room away on the cluttered dining room table. You’re yelling back, still in the kitchen doorway “WHAT IS IT? What exactly is ‘bodying’?”

He says “bodying” is punching and being punched below the head—in the stomach, the ribs, etc. Anywhere that won’t show. The kids were having fun, MOM, they were just having fun. One just screwed up and hit a nose. The bleeding stopped easily, he says, or so he thinks. Tangibly, that’s what he saw.

You beg to differ on every count. The blood is still flowing. Your words drown in his panic. He doesn’t know he sounds like a man. You feel the bass of his voice in your chest. He doesn’t realize his strength—of voice, body or spirit. None of these teen boys know their strength. They don’t get that they can bring you to your knees by simply growing. Every day these young men measure their strength against each other—competing, and comparing—Instagramming photos of their facial hair and biceps, staging contests on fields and over sandwiches at lunch.

Your son knows it was wrong, that it wasn’t just boys horsing around in a pre-game game before taking to the court. You’re not perfect, nor is he. He’s made mistakes, likely thrown a punch in anger that didn’t hit. And maybe you’ve made calls that didn’t need to be made or waved a finger in an innocent face.

But, this thing has a name. And, it’s not a simple game. That’s why he’s talking. It scares him—and you. You know this, even though you’re not saying it. You’re walking on eggshells now, just to keep him talking. You and your son, you’re both holding and being held hostage by this “game” and the negotiations are touchy. You’re on tip-toe, but you’re still in the ring. So, it’s still OK for now. He’s saying less, but hasn’t left.

You remember when a guy named Frankie yanked you up from your seat at the junior high cafeteria table by pulling your long hair. You remember hurdling hedges and taking secret cut-throughs in your neighbors’ yards when you and your friend Alisha fled Frankie’s mean gal pals, the ones wielding fists and pocket knives. Both Frankie and Alisha died young, neither due to violence. And, you are still alive. So, really, is any of this stuff life and death?

The mamma in you knows Florida A&M University band member Robert Champion died recently after a hazing incident, a beating on a bus. You’ve heard the news reports on the radio while scrubbing the bathtub and stirring soup. You went to college. You know about hazing. Group think, hazing, bullying—one person’s game or joke can lead to another person’s violent misery. Observation and silence can mean complicity.

There’s a fine line between “peer pressure for play” and negative peer pressure. Is it bullying? Is it a gateway to violence? To hazing?

Your son is begging you not to tell. You make him promise, “swear on your life you will not participate.” He says he won’t. But, you know the bleeding has begun. You fear he will be punched in the gut repeatedly with real fists or metaphorically with scapegoating. The question is not if. It is by whom? It is when?

You’ve always tried to protect him and can still imagine when his hand used to fit in yours, when he used to grasp your pinkie or reach for a hug after you snapped him into his car seat. No, you haven’t picked him up every single time he’s fallen. But, you’ve done your best to guide him. He needs his independence. You’ve done your best.

This single “bodying” incident has left bruises all around its victims—individual, team, familial, school, community—because bleeding still occurs when kept under the skin. There’s no such thing as “under wraps” when it comes to the ramifications of violence. Telling could result in punches. Not telling could render the same—another round of damaging pummels; blows, blows that could hurt the liver, blows that break a rib that punctures a lung, a single blow that sweeps him off his feet so he knocks his head, gets up and concusses later.

Or, just as bad, a blow he throws in defense that hurts another. You know he’s strong. You know that’s a possibility—that he would be sucked in to “bodying” and swing a lethal fist. Or that he would resist the taunts and dares and be unable to control his own ire. You know this could happen, because as strong as we are, we all react to these hits, these blows.

You realize you should tell.

You are an adult. You are a parent. Is this when you are taunted? When your strength is tested? You have been scared just writing this down. Is this where true daring occurs? Is this when you step up and take one for the team? Or are you breaking from the team? Is this when you assume the risk of betraying your son? Or is the betrayal in remaining silent about insidious threats? Referees wear black and white, not shades of grey. Whether you like it or not, whether you know it or not, there might be a right answer in response to the “game.” You lift up your phone and wonder. Your aching gut hopes, just this once, another parent beat you to the punch.

Krista Genevieve Farris has the privilege of bouncing her rough drafts off her husband and three sons from the comfort of her dining room table in Winchester, Virginia. In addition to Brain,Child, her recent essays, stories, and poems can be found in Literary Mama, Right Hand Pointing, Gravel, The Literary Bohemian, The Rain, Party and Disaster Society, Screech Owl, Tribeca Poetry Review and elsewhere. Please check out her author’s webpage at

What if it Was Your Son?

What if it Was Your Son?

By Robin Finn

Robin and son on beach

Walking across the blacktop of my son’s elementary school after the last bell rang, I couldn’t help but scan the faces of the boys at the handball courts. “You’re out!” a blond boy called, tossing back his hair to reveal a streak of dusty soot as if he’d recently emerged from a coal mine. “It’s a sticky!” a redhead countered, tucking the rubber ball firmly between his hip and forearm. A swarm of boys argued and pointed until the ball once again smacked against the large gray wall and I went lo look for my son.

Playing handball after school had once been my fourth grader’s favorite afternoon activity. For years, he’d shoved an oversized ball into his striped backpack, crushing his SpongeBob lunchbox, and pulling hard on the zipper to close it around the unsightly bulge. He’d looked more like a camel than a boy as he trudged up the hill on his way to school, the misshapen pack forming a kind of hump across his back. But my son didn’t play handball anymore.

The conflicts on the courts over the years had apparently been too much for him. He’d impatiently smacked the ball out of someone else’s hands, stormed off after what he deemed a bad call, or refused to leave the court, even when the other kids insisted he was ‘out,’ one too many times. And although he read social cues poorly, he read them well enough to know the other kids no longer wanted to play with him. I spotted my son in the distance, leaning against a wall in a yellow T-shirt and black sweatpants, reading a book.

A dad I’d been friendly with over the years—our boys were in the same grade—approached me and asked how my son was doing. This dad, I’ll call him Joe, was a stay-at-home parent and frequently hung out after school to oversee one of the handball courts. My son had once been one of his regulars.

“Not so great, Joe” I said, unable to hold back. “He’s having a hard time with friends. He doesn’t seem to have anyone to hang out with.”

“You know,” Joe said, adjusting his baseball cap, “your son’s a good kid. I just think …” he trailed off, choosing his words carefully, “he’s a bull in a china shop.” He looked away toward the kindergarten yard and then back at me. “Eventually, when the shopkeepers see the bull coming, they lock their doors. Y’know what I mean?” He squinted as the afternoon sun slow-roasted our flip-flopped feet on the pavement.

I liked Joe; he seemed like a decent guy. But watching my son sit alone at the edge of the playground, reading The Lightning Thief for the third time, his yellow Apple Store T-shirt rubbing against the side of a classroom, hurt. It was the kind of slow wound that festered.

Once, when the boys were in preschool, everybody in the class was a “friend.” “Friends,” the teacher would say, “it’s time to go outside.” Or, “Let’s ask our friends to help clean up the lunch tables.” Even though my son lay across his classmates at circle time and interrupted class conversations frequently, the other kids had accepted him.

But by the fourth grade, the universal “friend” had narrowed. Friends were people who invited you to their house after school and included you at their birthday parties. Friends were people your mom (or dad) liked and who were similar to you. Friends were easygoing and agreeable. Friends were not impulsive or hyperactive or emotional. Those were bulls.

But my son wasn’t a bull.

He was a ten-year-old boy who struggled with impulsivity and hyperactivity. And he didn’t live in a china shop. He lived in a community.

How could I tell this dad, who I knew to be a sweet guy, that he was way off base? That a bull is, after all, a wild animal, but a boy is not? A boy has feelings and the need to belong.

What I wanted to say, what I should have said, was, What if it was your son? Learning to get along with others is a life skill. Learning to see through other kids’ limitations and find the goodness inside changes the world. And my son, without a doubt, is filled with goodness. He’s just rough around the edges. But maybe that’s too much to ask of fourth graders. Or their parents.

I thought about all of this after I’d walked away. After I’d found a shady spot to nurse my hurt and wait for my son to finish the chapter so we could leave. I pulled out my phone and pretended to text so I wouldn’t have to talk to another parent who might wander by. I tried to work out my complex feelings—not just about this parent but about the long list of people I perceived as quick to judge my son, quick to shoot me the stink-eye, quick to delete my contact information or never return my e-mail asking for a play date.

When I pick up my son after school in the afternoons, I frequently see Joe surrounded by a large group of boys playing handball. If he happens to look my way, I give him a wave and he shoots me a dimpled smile. I still think about our conversation that day. How could I have conveyed what it feels like to be a parent of a child who is different and frequently misunderstood? It’s easy to classify a boy as a bull when he isn’t your boy. But what if he was?

Robin Finn, MPH, MA is a writer/author/essayist and the mother of three spirited kids. Her background in public health, spiritual psychology, and motherhood- including raising a child with special needs- informs the lens through which she views the world. Robin lives in L.A. and is working on her first novel. Learn more about Robin at

Here Comes Trouble

Here Comes Trouble

By Francie Arenson Dickman

Frannie_13I read my twelve-year-old daughters’ texts. I admit it. I take a peek whenever I get the chance, which isn’t that often because my kids are on to me and take their phones wherever they go, which includes the shower. I found this out a few weeks ago at the “Genius Bar”in the Apple Store where we went after one of the phones mysteriously stopped functioning. When Jeremy, our trouble shooter, asked if the phone had gotten wet recently, my daughter answered, “Not like soaked, but maybe like misted from steam in the bathtub.” Her face went red and she gave a small smile, as if to acknowledge the idiocy of her actions. I, however, stayed silent, unable to admit that I’d had a hand in it, that in a court of law, under but-for rules of causation, my own nosiness could be blamed for the broken phone.

I’ve heard the arguments against reading your child’s texts. Texts are private. It’s the way children communicate nowadays. They need to feel like they can freely express themselves. Obviously, these are the views of the more well-adjusted parents. I would like to be one of them. I would like to stop reading the texts, but honestly, I can’t. In this area of parenting, the realm of preteen relations, I am, like my daughter’s iPhone, damaged goods. I don’t need to apply any fancy rules of causation to tell you why. I was bullied in sixth grade.

When I say bullied, I don’t mean your garden variety name calling or not including, but the real deal, the stuff that makes up a parent’s worst fears and messes up a grown woman’s psyche. Girls throwing rocks at my mother as she shopped in town. A chain of arms linking across the hall so I couldn’t make my way. Walking home in the cold, after my winter coat had been buried in a snow drift while I’d sat in class.

As for why it happened, I can’t tell you. Although over the years I’ve developed a few theories which center around the fact that I was clueless and so was my mother. She sent me off in blind faith and Wranglers to sixth grade where I learned about Queen Bees and Wanna Be’s through on-the-job training.

But, like any survivor does, I gradually moved on and eventually, I moved away. I made friends. I got a degree. I found a career. I found a therapist, then a husband. I had kids. I was healed. And then, first physically and now it seems, emotionally, I moved back. I never intended to. I’d vowed to never return to my hometown after I graduated high school. But I’d found a house I loved in a neighborhood I liked with close friends and my parents nearby. “Go back,” the therapist told me, “and get it right.”

I tend to take any assignment with goodie two shoes seriousness (a habit which I suspect, along with the Wranglers, had something to do with the bullying), and so we bought the house, and I threw myself into my task of getting it right. For a while, the job was easy. But gradually, my girls got older. Third grade rolled into fourth, fourth into fifth, and before I knew what hit me, my SUV was rolling around the circle drive of Junior High. My girls were in sixth grade, and once again, so was I.

In an instant, I was off the wagon, undone, nauseous as could be when I dropped off my kids in the morning. When I looked out the window at the kids clustered around, I saw potential social terrorists. When I watched my own kids head into the melee, I saw potential targets. This time around, however, I vowed to be on guard, to get it right.

In my efforts to do so, I led my daughters in a series of well-intended but largely ignored lectures which touched on themes such as bullying, cyberbullying, empathy, inclusion, how to look our for yourself, why to not look out only for yourself, and when all else fails, how to throw a right hook.

I also committed to keeping tabs on social dynamics, which I quickly realized was more difficult than anticipated due to modern technology. Gone are the days when a parent can keep a finger on the pulse by simply pressing an ear against a bedroom door. Kids don’t talk, they text. So one day I decided to read, and I never stopped until the phone broke down. All in the quest to have what my mother did not—a sense of what’s going on.

The irony, of course, is that nothing is going on. In six months of school, while I’ve been patrolling and panicking, nothing has happened. As twelve-year-olds go, my children’s friends are saints. They have kind hearts, good values and nice families. It seems the only troublemaker in the sixth grade so far is me.

The other day I had to fill out a profile on each of my kids for camp. Has your daughter ever been teased? It asked. And I, in turn, asked my kids. “Have you ever been teased?”

Lilly answered with, “I don’t think so.”

Gracie answered with, “Only by Lilly.”

Their answers and their relaxed attitudes beg a few follow up questions for me, like can one really “get it right”when so much—having a twin, having nice neighbors—comes down to luck of the draw? Which in turn begs a better question: what the hell have I been doing with my time? Except, I’ve realized during the idle hours I’d allotted for advising on the non-existent bullying, scarring my children. In the name of getting it right, I have been screwing it up by handing down my issues—an aversion to groups, a distrust of people, the assumption that a friendship can go permanently south on a dime. My guess is that I am, like a parent who passes down an addiction, giving my own sixth grade to my daughters. Let’s face it, when the last words children hear as they head out the door are, “Stick together and don’t take shit from anyone,” their outlook on the day can only be so grand. I assume many parents would tell me that a better approach would be the more traditional, “Have a great day, girls. I love you.” Obviously, these are the same parents who aren’t sneaking peeks at their children’s texts, the well-adjusted ones who weren’t bullied in sixth grade.

I admit that maybe I have erred in the opposite direction as my mother. But isn’t that what parenting is all about? Swinging the pendulum, over compensating for the ways in which our parents fell short, making the big mistakes that keep therapists in business. My girls may likely grow up to be cynical, paranoid people with attachment issues. After all, one is already showering with a phone. But I hold out hope. There are still three months left of sixth grade and an entire year of seventh—an eternity at an age when all can go south on a dime.

Francie Arenson Dickmans essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.

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Book Review: Are You Worried About Bullying?

Book Review: Are You Worried About Bullying?

By Hilary Levey Friedman

The first of our new monthly Brain, Mother book review column. Subscribe to our blog and become a randomly chosen winner to receive a free copy of Sticks and Stones.

0-2The 1999 Columbine massacre changed the way we see bullying in schools. Since then 49 states have passed laws addressing bullying. In her recent book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, Emily Bazelon, a lawyer and journalist, shows how in post-Columbine America bullying has become one of the biggest stories about 21st century childhood.

And, yet, according to Bazelon’s research, things aren’t as dire as you might think. The stats show that somewhere between 15-20% of kids are regularly involved in bullying (either as victims or bullies) and while cases of bullycide are tragic, often there are underlying issues such as mental illness. To make her case Bazelon draws on Scandinavian research, analysis of legal cases, and in-depth investigation of three high profile cases involving children in the Northeast.

Sticks and Stones is divided into four parts; the first two focus on the stories of Monique, Jacob, and Flannery, while the third focuses on a synthesis of research, and the fourth on conclusions and tips to combat bullying. I found Part III to be the most compelling, particularly Chapter 9, “Delete Day,” which concentrates on Bazelon’s visit to Facebook and what the social media giant is doing about cyberbullying.

Bazelon writes: “The electronic incarnation of bullying also changed the equation for adults by leaving a trail.” Kids today care more about having a Facebook account suspended than getting suspended by their schools, so she argues that the company should do more protect teens (Bazelon suggests a simple solution that Facebook make the default settings private for any teenage account holder, which Facebook hasn’t yet done).

This links to one of the major takeaways from Sticks and Stones—that adults and social institutions play a crucial role in bullying.  Whether it be parents not intervening, or even intervening too much especially when it comes to the press, or teachers and school administrators not taking threats seriously and missing signs of serious abuse, our educational system and social media sites play a major role in the “drama” between kids. While Bazelon acknowledges that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish between typical drama among teens and bullying, she iterates that the best working definition of bulling is verbal or physical aggression repeated over time that involves a power differential between children. Her portrayal of Flannery’s story, related to the national headline-making “bullycide” of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, illustrates just how complicated this can be: Even after talking with many people over a period of months and pouring over legal documents, Bazelon confesses she still isn’t 100% sure what happened.

As a mom I learned from Sticks and Stones that as involved as I am while my son is a toddler, I need to stay that involved as he ages and engages with peers online and in school. Our work doesn’t stop when the kids head into the schoolyard; whether they are bullies or bullied, they are still our children.

Hilary Levey Friedman is a Harvard sociologist who studies childhood, competition, and beauty. Her book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, was recently released—and she now contemplates what activities her sons will participate in someday. Visit her website, for more.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

Bus Rides

Bus Rides

By Christine Pakkala

School Bus ArtWhen the second-grade class comes out, I immediately see Lulu’s blonde head among the brown, floating like something lost and bright at sea. I recognize the turquoise sleeveless top she hated at the store but I bought anyway and the stained khakis she insisted on wearing, instead of the skirt with the matching turquoise flowers.

It has only been an hour since I waved good-bye to my daughter at the bus stop, but I am absurdly excited to see her again. I signed up to chaperone all the field trips, but as the teacher gently said, “All the parents need a chance.” Now is my chance, and my heart knocks around like a teenager in love.

“Line up,” the teacher says. “Children, line up.” Although she doesn’t tell them to find partners, everyone does. Janna clutches the hand of Madison, Anna wraps her arm around Sophia, and so on.

And there is Lulu, staring up at the clouds, absolutely alone. Her brow is furrowed in that way I recognize: she is concentrating hard. Cirrus, cumulus, stratus, she told me the other day, naming the kinds of clouds.

My heart tightens like her shoelace knots I tied this morning. It hurts to see her like that, turning her gaze from the clouds and heading to the school bus alone. Damn it, Lulu! I want to yell. Grab a hand.

But she doesn’t hold anybody’s hand, and she doesn’t have her arm draped around anyone’s shoulder. She climbs up the bus steps, and I have to follow although the yellow school bus fills me with dread. It reminds me of journeys I would rather forget—but I can’t, now that I’m her mom. Her very presence in my life is a constant reminder of my own girlhood.

I know her Westport, Connecticut, childhood is very different from mine. Her parents are married, her sheets are clean, her dogs are purebred, her refrigerator is full, and she is bathed and read to and adored. But I can’t help it. My intention is to let the past be over there—in Idaho—while I’m safe over here on the East Coast. But it keeps rushing in.

When I was Lulu’s age, I hated riding the bus, where all the kids paired up in the seats made for two. It seemed to me that school buses were lawless places where kids could be just as mean as they wanted to be and no one would care. And I was an easy target. I was the new kid in town, over and over again.

First, divorce, then drinking, then trouble making payments forced my mom and stepdad to keep moving us until we ended up in a run-down trailer court on the outskirts of Asotin, a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it town on the banks of the Snake River. When school started, the yellow bus screeched to a halt in front of the trailer court manager’s unit, kicking up dust. In the pocket of my yard-sale cords was a round plastic token for the free lunch. I walked down the aisle embedded with dirty pink circles of gum and squeezed past the shoulders hanging off the seat. There was no place to sit.

Trailer trash! Some kid shouted it out, and lots of kids laughed. As the bus pulled away from the manager’s trailer, as I stood there, hot and dizzy in the aisle, all eyes on me. The bus driver made a U-turn, so I had to hold on to the seat or lose my balance. My fingers brushed the shoulder of a girl.

She said, Ooh, cooties.

I looked back to the front of the bus, helpless and panicking. I wanted more than anything to just sit down. The bus driver caught my eye in his rear-view mirror. He slammed on the brakes, metal shrieking.

Sit down! he yelled. With his armpits ringed with sweat, he stood up and bellowed, Move over. Finally, some kid (striped shirt, big collar) scooted over, and we lurched forward to Asotin Elementary.

But that was me—not Lulu. So why can’t I let her be a girl who chooses to stare at the clouds instead of grasping a friend’s hand?

On the bus, Janna and Madison whisper to each other; Anna and Sophie try to get their window down. Lulu marches past them toward the back of the bus and finds a seat. I slide in next to her and wrap my arm around her. I kiss her cheek once, and, when I go for the second kiss, she leans away.

“How has your day been so far?” I ask her.

She leans her forehead into the window and stares out. To me, it is the posture of melancholy. “Good,” she says into the glass.

“What did you do?”

“Mom, we were only there for an hour.” She sighs and looks out the window.

I look around the bus. I wonder if I’m coming down with something, it hurts so much to breathe. Maybe it’s allergies, this tightening around my chest.

As the bus roars to life, the children’s chatter grows in competition with the motor, and we make our way to Bridgeport. We pick up the children’s “Buddies” at school there. Bridgeport is the town that neighbors Westport. It was once prosperous but when the factory jobs left, so did the prosperity.

As these children file onto the bus, it occurs to me that I have more in common with these Bridgeport kids than I do with my own daughter. Their childhoods are ones without a lot of money to cushion them.

Yet every girl has perfectly groomed hair, tied back in buns or ponytails. I imagine their moms combing their daughters’ hair early in the morning, then tying it into frothy buns. It makes me remember that no matter how bad things got, my mom would always make me sleep with big plastic pink rollers. In the morning she would take them out and spray my hair with Final Net. She’d tie up my curls with fat, bright yarn and send me off to meet the bus. Even hungover, she would do that. Even if my stepdad beat the crap out of me with his belt the night before, I still looked good on Picture Day.

Looking at these Bridgeport girls with their gleaming hair, I feel compassion for my own mother for the first time in years. Trying to make order when there was none; trying to take care of me in a way she knew how.

After touring a museum with their Buddies, the children file back on the bus. This time, the teacher instructs them to sit with the Buddies. I find myself in a seat with the other mother. After saying hello, I turn and see a little girl from Lulu’s class sitting with her Buddy.

“Hi, Madison,” I say, smiling sweetly at her.

She looks very bored, very hot.

“Hi,” she says grumpily.

Her Buddy, Bianca Sofia Rodriguez, according to her nametag, gazes in another direction.

I’m happy that the Buddy system broke up the real buddy system, happy that everyone is suffering.

And that makes me feel a little ashamed. I turn back to face the front, and the bus jounces along. I’m not a proper grown-up. Proper grown-ups don’t want revenge—not against other children, anyway. But the stronger emotion prevails: I sit there thinking of Lulu, alone at recess while the Madisons and the Sophies play fairy games. I want to fight them, and the ones I can’t get to now: the Heathers, the Tiffanys, the Jennifers that made my yard-sale, drunk-Mom childhood miserable.

Madison suddenly yelps.

“My Lip Smackers!” she cries. “I dropped it!”

The panic in Madison’s voice is familiar. I dropped a small bottle on the bus once. It was amber-colored glue.

I bought the glue for myself with the Christmas money that my real dad gave me. When school began again, in January, I carried the glue in my coat pocket, feeling for it when some kid said, “What’d you get for Christmas, retard?” All day long, I kept it in my pocket, and when I felt lonely, I help the bottle in my hand, under my desk.

On the bus ride home, I got a seat next to the window and held it up to the weak January sunlight. I watched how the sun made it orange. The bus hit a pothole, and I dropped the amber-colored glue. I was on my hands and knees looking for it, when the bus pulled up to the trailer court. The kids were laughing, telling me to get up. Somebody kicked me in the butt.

Get off the bus! You’re going to make me late for my shows! the kicker yelled.

Did I say already that when I held it up to the light, it changed color? I wished more than anything that I hadn’t let it go.

The parent next to me jumps up and, after glancing under a few seats, grabs the Lip Smackers, triumphantly handing it back to Madison.

I hope that for all these kids, that what is dropped will be picked up. What is lost will be found. What is broken, mended. I hope that they never need magic glue.

We get out at the Buddies’ school in Bridgeport. It’s a modern building, but huge, housing kindergarten through eighth grade, unlike our smaller K through 5 school.

We troop to a cafeteria to eat lunch. I suppose the idea of sharing a meal is to build a community, but it doesn’t work that way. First of all, each kid from Bridgeport gets the free lunch (although they don’t have to hand over the plastic token like I did). Their lunches are, of course, identical: a bologna and cheese sandwich, an apple, milk, and cookies. All the Westport kids open their paper bags filled with too much food—a great variety of organic applesauce, sandwiches, clusters of grapes.

The children eat in absolute silence. Lulu has a Starbucks fruit salad, an Odwalla juice, organic chips, and a fresh bagel. I watch her carefully as she eats it, watch each bite of apple that goes into her mouth, each grape.

I turn my attention to her Buddy sitting next to her. In Spanish, the Buddy asks a boy from her class if he is going to use the mayonnaise packet. He hands it to her with a smile, and she opens it and squirts it onto her sandwich. I watch this little girl enjoying bite after bite and remember how hungry I used to be at Asotin Elementary. I ate every bite of my free lunch. My favorite was the chicken-fried steak that came with a dollop of mashed potatoes, limp green beans, and a roll that was golden brown and tasted like butter. The lunch lady gave me seconds on the rolls when she had them to spare. I hope this girl had breakfast. I hope she’ll have dinner, too.

Finally, the silent lunch is over, and the Westport kids say goodbye to the Buddies. We troop out into the sunshine, and all the alliances re-form as we wait for the bus, Madison with Janna, Sophie with Anna.

“Do you want me to sit next to you, or do you want to sit next to a friend?” I ask, hating myself for still wanting to yoke her to another child.

Above me, on the step, Lulu turns, her wide blue eyes considering me. She leans toward me, cups her hand to my ear and whispers, “Is it okay if I sit with Riley? She doesn’t have a friend.”

I nod.

“Are you sure, Mom?” Lulu asks.

I nod again.

“Come on, Lulu,” someone bellows from on board. Lulu turns without another word and jumps up the step.

I am so struck dumb by this realization—that all the time I was worrying about her, Lulu was worrying about me. I climb on board, see her sitting there with Riley, the two of them talking. The bus lurches forward.

“Lady, take a seat,” the driver says.

Author’s Note: The great thing about writing an essay is that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The same cannot be said for the issue I write about in this essay. I had that moment of clarity on the bus, but I still have to fight the urge to pack Lulu too many snacks and ask her a couple dozen questions after school every day. She caught on pretty quickly to a trick I picked up in a parenting magazine: If you want to know how your kid is doing at school, ask them what they did at recess. Now her answer is standard: Nothing.

Brain, Child (Spring 2008)

Christine Pakkala’s essays have appeared in Salon, Serendipity, and Ladies Home Journal, among others. Last-But-Not-Least Lola is her chapter book series debut, published by Boyds’ Mill Press. She lives in Westport, Connecticut with her husband and two children.