This morning, my 6-year-old son sat down to eat his breakfast at the exact moment I opened up my New York Times. In general, I try to read the paper when the kids aren’t nearby for fear they’ll see a photo they’re too young to see.
Today’s paper seemed fairly innocent. There are the obligatory Republican and Democrat fighting articles. Then comes the mandatory “wars around the world” op-ed or two. Then in the middle of the front page, is a picture of two football players who are teammates for the Miami Dolphins.
“Those guys look like gladiators,” my son tells me as he sees the bright blue picture from across the table. “They’re football players,” I tell him. “Their job is to play football.” He then asks why the paper has a picture of these two guys.
The reason the paper has a picture of these two Miami Dolphins is because one of the players, Jonathan Martin, a Stanford graduate in his first year on the Dolphins, just quit the team after months of relentless bullying and harassment from the other Dolphin in the photo, Richie Incognito.
The alleged bullying included a barrage of text and racial slur-filled voice messages containing threats on Martin and his family. Instead of reporting the incident to the team coaches, Martin quit the team. I can’t imagine what a hard decision that must have been and what duress Mr. Martin must have been under. Playing in the NFL is a dream for most boys. It must have taken a lot of pain to give that up.
There’s a point in every child’s life when he's going to be old enough to know that not everybody is kind.
Usually, I try to shelter my kids, who are 6 and 2, from the news. They don’t have a context for information, and hearing about the horrible things grown-ups can do to one another can only make them scared. But for some reason today, I decide to tell my son the truth. At least the age-appropriate truth.
“These Dolphins are in the paper because the one on the right quit the team because the one on the left was bullying him about the way he looks,” I tell my son. He pauses for a moment then asks a question I’ve been asking myself since reading the article. “Why would he make fun of someone for the way he looks?” he asks simply. I tell him the truth. "I don’t know."
There’s a point in every child’s life when he's going to be old enough to know that not everybody is kind. And while I wish my kids never had to have their utopian bubble burst, I also want them to understand how the world works—the age appropriate version of how the world works, that is.
When I was driving my son to school a bit later, he asked about the article again—still unsure why anyone would make fun of anyone else for the way they looked. We had a long conversation about kindness and the differences in people. We talked about our own differences and how they were neither good nor bad. “You have red hair and I have vanilla hair,” my blond 6-year-old says. “That’s not bad or good, right, mommy?”
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There’s plenty of news my kids are too young to hear about. Quite frankly, there’s plenty of news I wish I didn’t have to hear about. But I’m glad I shared the kid version of this terrible story about one football player being relentlessly picked on by another. Maybe it’ll make my kid be kinder or help him if someone is unkind to him. I’d hate for him to have to someday give up his dreams just because some ignorant bully doesn’t like his vanilla-colored hair.