My fourth grader, Jayden, came home from school one Friday afternoon in a lousy mood. This was a red flag because he’s the most easygoing member of our family, and he’s typically at his happy-go-luckiest when he gets a break from school and has the whole weekend to look forward to. I had the afternoon planned—we’d make a dessert together, watch a show, and then make dinner. But he clearly wasn’t into any of it. I prodded him for a while to tell me what was up, and, finally, he said, “Something happened at school today. A kid at school was teasing me.”
“About what?” I asked.
“About being adopted,” he said, and then he started to tear up. “A kid said, ‘Your mom gave you up for adoption.’”
I tried to remember all the books I’d read and the discussions I’d had with other adoptive parents to prepare me for this precise moment, but my brain flooded with anger so quickly all I could think was, Should I call the school district superintendent or the local news? Then I took a deep breath, and asked him for more details.
“I don’t get it,” said Jayden. He paused for a moment, trying to compose himself. I leaned in, ready for him to drop a bigger bombshell. And he continued, “I mean, I only told a couple of my friends I was adopted, so I don’t know how this kid knew.”
I waited a beat, thinking maybe he was joking, but this isn’t really his sense of humor. My son still looked sad and teary, which is why I’m embarrassed to say—I laughed out loud. Hard. Had I been drinking anything, I would have done a spit take.
When I saw he wasn’t laughing, however, I took a deep breath and tried to compose myself as I thought of an appropriate response.
“Um, Buddy,” I said, “Remember how we’ve talked about how you and I are not the same race. You’re black and I’m white.”
He nodded. “Yeah, I know.”
“Don’t you notice when we go out in public that people stare at us.”
I scratched my forehead, struggling to think of what to say next. None of my preplanned responses had prepared me for this. I’d assumed my son knew it was obvious to the world—specifically, other 10-year-olds—that he was adopted. I struggled to figure out how I had so misjudged his awareness. Finally it occurred to me that I should ask him a few more questions. I found out that the other kid was actually one of his good friends. They’d been joking around, and things got out of hand.
“Buddy, listen, kids can be mean, and it sounds like this kid was trying to get a rise out of you. At your age, kids tease each other about the easiest thing, whether someone got a bad haircut or wears glasses or has braces. But it doesn’t sound like he meant to be a bully or was intentionally mean.”
He nodded. “Yeah, I know.”
“Do you want to help me make dessert now?”
“I think I’d rather be by myself for a little while.”
I said that sounded like a good idea. Then I gave him a hug and a kiss, and sent him off. I figured it was best to let him be alone with his thoughts and see if he was still upset in a few hours. Meanwhile, I emailed his teacher to find out if she’d seen or heard any of the interaction.
As I debriefed the conversation in my mind, I was glad it had taken a comical turn—though I felt bad I’d laughed as hard as I did. But that laughter had brought me out of my own feelings of anger. I felt like I was able to assess the situation from a distance and allow him to talk himself through his feelings. Jayden’s still at an age where he takes his emotional cues from Laurie and me, so if I’d treated this as a sad and somber moment, he would have too. And I do think my finding some humor in it must have helped him, too, because he was back to his fun-loving, “Friday afternoon” self within an hour. We made the dessert and watched our show.
In fact, Jayden was his usual self the rest of the weekend until Sunday night, when his teacher emailed me back. She informed me that she’d overheard quite a bit of the boys’ interaction, and was going to email Laurie and me, as well as the other student’s parents. Apparently the two boys had gotten out of hand with their joking in the past—specifically with telling “Yo’ Mama” jokes.
“Jayden!” we shouted, after we finished reading the email. “A word, please.”
He came into the room with a big smile on his face, oblivious to anything. “Hey, Mom. Hey, Dad. How’s it going?”
“Tell me about you and your friend telling ‘Yo’ Mama’ jokes in class.”
He saw the look on our faces and his smile quickly disappeared. “Um….”
“Why didn’t you mention this on Friday when you told me about the conversation?”
He looked down at the ground and said, “I don’t know.”
“That kind of changes the story a bit, doesn’t it?”
“Do you want to tell me your contribution to this incident?”
He paused. “Not really.”
“Son, I’ll rephrase: Tell me the Yo Mama joke you said."
“I said, ‘Yo Mama drives a green car.’”
There was an awkward pause. “Let me get this straight,” Laurie said. “You said ‘Yo Mama drives a green car,’ and then your friend said ‘Yo Mama gave you up for adoption.’ Is that right?”
He nodded, but said nothing. I think he didn’t want to incriminate himself any further. Meanwhile, I couldn’t decide whether I was mad that he had been part of this ridiculous exchange in the first place or that he couldn’t have come up with a better line. Laurie shot me a look that clearly meant she was thinking the same thing. But she leaned over and whispered, “We need to pretend this is a big deal to teach him a lesson.” I nodded.
We told him we’d better not get any more reports from his teachers about joking and teasing getting out of hand. Then we dismissed him.
“Why do boys act like this?” Laurie asked me.
“No idea,” I said. “But I’m nervous it will probably get worse as he gets older.”
“Yeah, me too,” she said. Then she giggled. “But on the other hand, it could also get funnier.”
I chuckled. “Hopefully by then he’ll have better comebacks.”
BILLY CUCHENS is the father of five through transracial foster and domestic newborn adoption. He lives with his family in Texas.
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