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Balancing Act

Instilling bravery in kids starts with their parents

Heidi Stevens

Balancing Act

March 30, 2014

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Can we spend a few minutes talking about Noreen Bruce?

She's the mom of Grayson Bruce, the 9-year-old North Carolina boy who was harassed at school for carrying a My Little Pony backpack, which he uses as a lunch box.

You've probably heard his story. "Good Morning America" covered it. USA Today covered it. People magazine covered it. Glenn Beck hosted Grayson on the set of his new show.

Most of the chatter has focused on the school's handling of the situation. I want to focus on his mom's handling of it.

"The principal told me that we can no longer bring the bag to school," Noreen Bruce told "Good Morning America." "That he, as principal, had the right to ban anything that he believed was a distraction."

"Saying a lunch box is a trigger for bullying is like saying a short skirt is a trigger for rape," Bruce continued. "It's flawed logic."

Indeed it is.

The school has since reversed course, releasing a statement that says, "We sincerely regret that the issue of being told to leave the book bag at home was perceived as blaming Grayson. While that was not the intent, the perception became reality. We support Grayson bringing the book bag to school."

The reversal was helped along, no doubt, by the 11,000-plus signatures on a change.org petition. The "Support for Grayson" Facebook page, which collected more than 74,000 likes, probably helped too.

This narrative could have taken a very different trajectory. Elementary school is, tragically, paradoxically, a hostile place.

Fortunately, this kid has a village — which speaks volumes for the present and future state of our culture, flawed as it may be.

His village, though, began with his mom — the mom who rejected the school's advice and told her son to carry whatever bag he wanted to carry. How many of us, faced with a similar directive from the school, would have chosen the path of slightly lesser resistance? Sweetie, let's go buy you a new bag. Maybe something Star Wars!

It's the most natural instinct in the world — to survey our children's landscapes for danger and minimize it in the pitifully few instances we actually can. I hear from parents weekly: "My son wants to be a princess for Halloween …" "My son wants to take ballet …" "My son wants me to paint his nails …" Invariably followed by, "I'd be fine with it. … I just don't want him to get teased."

I've been that parent.

I'm always reminded, though, of the wise words of Harvard Medical School psychologist Anthony Rao, co-author of "The Way of Boys: Promoting the Social and Emotional Development of Young Boys" (William Morrow). We were talking, more than a year ago, about encouraging our kids to pursue endeavors that they're most passionate about — not the ones that will curry them favor with the in-crowd.

"You don't want to send the message that following the crowd is the way to go," Rao told me. "That can lead to all sorts of scarier things, especially as they enter middle school and following the herd becomes much riskier."

Isn't that the truth.

I called Rao to get his thoughts on Grayson.

"This is a sensitive, thinking boy who is going to grow up and do some things that this world really wants and needs," Rao said. "He's going to write some cool books or be a nurturer or a healer — someone who thinks about other people. His school missed a fantastic opportunity to talk to the aggressive kids and teach them there's more than one way to be a boy."

His mom didn't miss the opportunity.

"You absolutely want to reward a child's independent thinking," Rao says. "That's a terrific gift right there. You want your child to be willing to go against the pack, especially when the pack, later, is saying, 'You want to try this drug?'

"You want to tell your child, 'I really admire that you're doing it your way.'"

And if you're lucky, a whole village will echo you.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidstevens13