My mom raised a lot of animals, both domestic and wild, so we always had a house full of them. I think the most cats we had at one time was 12 or 13, and fortunately, many of them stayed outside.
It was quite common for us to have a tiny batch of baby squirrels that needed feeding around the clock. Possums and raccoons were frequent guests of ours, as well, and wherever there was a stray dog or cat, they knew where they could find a home. It was pretty common to wake up in the middle of night to find our back door pushed open and a couple of "rehabilitated and released" raccoons raiding our kitchen and scampering around the countertops! (We had released some of them on our property since we had plenty of woods and a lake).
Oftentimes, my mom would show up after school with a cage in one hand and bottles, syringes or eyedroppers in another, waiting to show off her newest "babies" to my classmates. Most of the kids thought it was pretty cool, but I always turned a shade of pink, feeling embarrassed about my mom "the animal lady" in full gear.
One of the kids must have noticed this was a weak spot for me and pounced on the opportunity: "Eeew, Ruthie lives in a zoo!" he shouted across the classroom with a nasty expression. My lips froze while my mind was reeling. What could I possibly say back? It was pretty much true. You can't have that many animals coming and going in your house without a little of that "zoo" feeling and animal smell.
Well the moment passed, and the kids forgot, but I didn't. Twenty-one years later and I still remember that nasty comment and the sour expression that went along with it. Why? Because of the awful way it made me feel.
A few sharp, impulsive comments can last a lifetime. Overall, I was pretty fortunate because I didn't get teased all that often. I wish that was true for all children, but instead, many kids are forced to deal with the frustration, anger and hurt that comes with teasing every day.
Anything at all that makes a child different from the others - crooked teeth, glasses, weight problems - can set them up for a childhood full of teasing. This is an awful thing for kids to have to deal with, and while we can't do a whole lot about it while they're at school, we can protect them when they are at home. Take the time that you have with your child at home and use it to build them up.
Give them generous portions of specific praise; give them lots of physical affection and cuddle time. Make sure they are practicing good hygiene; make it a point to dress them as nicely as you can for school (go on with the trends - every little bit helps!), and always find ways to compliment your child's appearance.
Boost their confidence in themselves at home so much so that they won't even believe the nonsense that other kids may tease them about. And let me say this loud and clear: Never allow your kids to cut on each other and tease. Don't let them say nasty things about each other, whether it's in front of the other child or not. Don't allow it. Teach them to speak to and of each other with respect and love.
How should you handle it when they do tease each other? We've tried a couple of responses that seem to help.
If someone says something mean to another, he has to "drop and give me 10." That's right, we make 'em do push-ups! Then we require a genuine apology along with a hug and maybe a kiss on the cheek and also an "I love you."
Sometimes, we tell them to think up something nice to say to compliment the child they've been mean to, such as "I've noticed that you're really great at basketball." Again, it has to be something specific or it doesn't count.
It's amazing what you can get your kids to do if you just expect it of them. At the end of the day, your children all know that they are "safe" when they are at home, and that's so very important. Home should be an oasis, a shield of protection and love from the rest of the world, a place where they know they will be loved and accepted.
Ruthie Davidson is a mother of four children, ages 5 to 10. She lives in South Daytona and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.