I sat on my lawn chair on a hot, buggy evening at the ball diamonds, watching my son interact with teammates in the dugout, a knot in my stomach. A player walked off the diamond after taking home, and my son’s hand was outstretched to give him a high-five, a smile on his face.

Here it comes. Here it comes.

He’ll skip him, I thought. He’ll ignore my son but high five the other players.

Then the same plea that perpetuates itself in my mind each time my kids interact with their peers, like a record player skipping over and over:

Please don’t be me.

But it doesn’t happen. Player 42 reaches his hand up, slaps my son’s hand, and moves down the line of outstretched palms.

I can breathe now, but I can’t seem to relax.

It was fine this time, I thought, but it won’t be next time.

Next time it will be something else. Like scooting away from him on the bench so that he’s by himself. Or getting in his face when he’s struck out and screaming at him, insults cavalcading around him like a swarm of angry bees.

None of this happens, though. His teammates sit next to him, cheer him on when he’s up to bat, shrug their shoulders when he’s struck out.

“He’s not you, you know,” a voice in my head says. Thank God, I think.

A reel plays through my mind of a clumsy but sincere girl struck in the face with a volleyball by another player because she missed the cue during practice, and it angered the other girl.

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Then there’s her mother breaking down in the car and crying as she drove her home from a basketball game because she watched the other players gang up on her during the game to scream in her face for missing a pass. They also threw her duffel bag of clean clothes into the shower after the game so she had to stay in her sweaty jersey afterward, but she just told her mom she didn’t feel like showering. Her name and jersey number were ripped from the roster of players that decorated the billboard in the gym hallway. You’re not one of us. You never will be. All the practicing she did at home lost its meaning. It didn’t matter anymore. You win.

At church, I watched my eighth-grade daughter shyly approach the girls she goes to school with, a smile on her face.

I watched as the other girls stared back at her and closed their ranks tighter. She tells me about this on the car drive home after service. She doesn’t know I watched. “I don’t know why they just stared,” she says, and tries to laugh it off, but her laugh comes out forced and dies abruptly.

Please don’t be me.

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My advice to my children isn’t (cough) very orthodox according to the self-help parenting books I read.

It comes from a place of hard reality, from a person who tried her best to get along but never had the courage to stand up for herself.

People suck. Kids are mean. So when my son comes home and tells me about a kid who throws a ball at his head during four square every time he plays, I see that volleyball hit me in the face and the stupidity that I had to just stand there and take it.

Please don’t be me.

This is not his first go-around with four square kid, so I make sure he looks me in the eye. “If he hits you,” I say, “you hit him back. Do you understand? Mom says.”

He looks at me wide-eyed.

“And you hit him harder. If he pushes you, push him back, and push him harder. Make him remember he can’t treat you like that. Don’t go looking for a fight but stand up for yourself.”

In the car on the drive home from church, I think about the time I wasted on kids I wanted to like me but would never have long-term relationships with.

Please don’t be me.

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I level with my daughter. “It’s not right that they treat you that way,” I say. “It sucks. But you don’t have to be their friend. Don’t be mean and treat them the same way but don’t go out of your way for them. Being friendly and being friends with someone are completely different things.”

Picking up my son from school, he is breathless with excitement. It’s about four-square kid again.

“Today when we were standing in line, he shoved me into the wall, Mom. But I pushed him backharder! I pushed him so hard he stumbled and his head did this (imitates whiplash).”

“And what happened next? What did he do?”

“Nothing! He just went into the bathroom. And he laughed. But he left me alone.”

For the next two weeks, I follow up on this. Four-square kid leaves my son alone. He leaves him alone the rest of the school year. They still play four square at recess, but the other kid stops trying to lobby balls at him and turns his attention to other kids instead (sigh).

Next lessonstanding up for others.

Previously published on the author’s blog

Annie Barkalow

Annie Barkalow is a mom to four kids and a full-time college student. She is an unapologetic introvert and book worm. You can find her ducking out of parties and standing sentinel at the coffee pot.