Brendan O'Connor: 'All our children are different and we cherish them for that'
We all know the worry that our children are being bullied or that they aren't coming home - but we are lucky, writes Brendan O'Connor
Some are more different than others for sure, but every single one of us who is a parent has a child who is different. They may be too tall, too pretty, too sporty, too quiet, too loud, too into music, too not into music, too into dancing, not into dancing, too shy, too bossy, too happy, too sad. That's the nature of the world and the nature of people. We are all different. Our children are all different, all unique. Which is why we love them so much. Because they are themselves.
And we want to mind that difference. If they are too innocent, we can tend to guard that innocence. However their uniqueness manifests, we try not to beat it out of them, or have it beaten out of them at school, by peers or teachers or the system. Because that is who they are, and we don't want them broken. We don't want them to think that whatever they are isn't right, or isn't good enough.
Sure, we want them to be good, kind people. We want them to be the kind of kids that other kids and adults want to be around. We want them to be liked. We try to teach them the rules of the game, and how to be happy, and how to get on with other people and respect other people. But we try not to break them, or turn them on themselves.
They are all different, but different sometimes comes to be seen as weird or outcast. And we know too that this can be entirely subjective. Bullies aren't really rational, and what bullies do isn't really about the victims, it's about the bullies. Bullies determine who is weird and outcast and who can be separated from the herd and broken, for all kinds of reasons.
It can be as simple as picking an easy target, someone who doesn't have a lot of back-up, someone who is already isolated. It can be a case of picking someone who scares the bully or threatens them in some way - of the bully needing to break that person to feel stronger themselves.
A bully might pick on someone because they don't understand them. It can be a question of picking on someone because they remind you of something that bothers you in yourself. They are an affront to you in some way. They make you uncomfortable. Too pretty, too different, too quiet, too loud, too alone, too happy.
And then somehow, it can become a virus. The victim becomes marked, an outcast, not the kind of person you want to be seen with. It lowers people's status to be friends with the victim. And without meaning to, a whole community of people, a whole group, can seem to conspire to lock someone out. No one calls. It becomes OK to say awful things to that person.
The bar is lowered in terms of how you treat them, in terms of what you can say about them. They are almost dehumanised. They are not like us, they are not part of the tribe, they are cast out, they deserve nothing. And don't stand with them, because you will catch the virus too.
We try to mind our children now like no generation ever did. We are more awake than ever to the dangers. We know we have to let them make mistakes and be resilient, but we can't help wanting to protect them.
And we are, of course, more aware of all the dangers out there than we ever were. We are ever watchful for the slightest sign that a process is starting.
We worry that their difference will come to be perceived as weird, that one bully will start it, and suddenly it takes off, and grows and grows. And it feeds on itself. We worry then about how one bad experience feeds into the difference, that it makes them closed, watchful, suspicious, which shuts them off even more. They might start to isolate themselves. Experience might teach them to isolate themselves. Because suddenly everything they do and say seems to be the wrong thing.
And for the parents of difference, which is all of us, there is nothing more painful than seeing the thing you love most in the world not loved by others. How can they not see the beauty, the specialness, the wonderful uniqueness? How can they just see it as weird and cast it out?
And then, of course, technology has made being cast out so much more all-enveloping. There is no escape from being cast out now. It follows you home, into your room. It's no longer just isolated incidents or passing comments that might make your cheeks burn and your eyes tear up, but that you can at least run away from. Now the comments are there for all to see, and they stay there. And they multiply.
Most of us are lucky enough not to know what a hard and bleak place the world can be for the bullied and the weird and cast out. And many of the bullied and the weird and the cast out get to grow up, and have their moment, when it dawns, over time, that actually they weren't the problem, it was the others.
And once they get away from the others, they realise that what they actually were was not weird but special, and the world realises it too. And that light they had hidden, they suddenly let shine.
Most victims get some chance to start again.
But most parents have some taste, some inkling, some moment where we see how cruel the world can be to the different ones, the special ones, the fragile ones, which is all of our kids. We all know how much it hurts them and how much it hurts us to see them hurt.
Most of us have an inkling too of how powerless you can feel when you get an inkling of something wrong. We all know too that some kids can be little shits, and it can be very hard to know what to do about it, and it can be hard for schools to deal with too.
But really, we have no idea of the real world of pain that's out there, do we?
We've all had a moment too, a moment where we couldn't see our child in some busy airport or shop. Or a moment where we gave a child a new bit of independence and let them go on a little mission out of the house. And you watch the clock, and then you start wondering why they're not back. And you tell yourself it's grand. There will be a perfectly innocent explanation. This kind of thing doesn't really happen. Kids don't disappear.
But there is always that tiny part of you that wonders if this is it. Is this the moment that you will remember always as the moment your life changed forever? Is this the end of life as you knew it? Is everything going to change now? Is this going to spiral into a nightmare?
But of course it doesn't. Suddenly they are there, calm and smiling, and the monsters in your head go back into the dark corners where they sleep. And you don't let on you were worried.
But maybe later on you say that in future, they need to go straight there and straight back. Or don't wander off in airports or shops.
You are grateful and feel so lucky in that second when you see them again.
And then you forget again the horror you conjured and go back to taking everything for granted.
We can imagine what the pain of it must be like. But we are all so lucky. We are all so incredibly lucky. So lucky our families are not destroyed ever.
So lucky that, for now at least, our children are with us, and also in our hearts, forever loved, forever cherished.