"I hated some of it," she answers in her clear voice, and I wince and shush her.
Once we're safely in the car, she tries telling me what she hated. Boyd said something, Olivia was doing something, Boyd is mean...she's not being very coherent, and I'm trying to move our ridiculously large pickup down a street lined with cars on both sides, then turn it around so we can head home. I shush her again.
"Now," I saw briskly when we get onto the main road, "I can listen to your story."
She's still largely incoherent, stammering and restarting sentences. I tell her to take a deep breath. Do I say that reassuringly, or patronizingly? I'm not sure myself. I remind myself to listen.
"I told Olivia I would probably invite her to MY birthday party," she begins, and I cringe internally. She can't just go around telling everyone that, because we can't afford to host every single kid she knows. Also, I don't want her using it as some power play--bestowing and withdrawing phantom invitations to express people's current standing in her social circle.
She continues with her story. "And then Boyd asked if I was going to invite him, and I said no, so he asked if I was going to invite Griffin, and I said no, because he's really loud, and he asked if I was going to invite Connor and I said no again--he's the one who's always talking about his nuts, Mom--so then Boyd asked if I was going to invite any boys at all and I said no and he said, 'Not even your dad?' and then he said, 'Not even your boyfriend?' and everybody LAUGHED."
I'm thinking how easily this could have been dealt with if she'd said the truth, that her parents had agreed to let her have a slumber party, but only would let her invite girls. Or, the more obvious point, which I immediately brought up.
"How do you think it made Boyd feel when you started talking about your party in front of him, and then told him he wasn't invited?"
"Well, I didn't tell him that, he asked!"
"Okay, but if you start talking about a party in front of people that you already know you're not going to invite--isn't that just going to make them feel bad no matter what? Why would you even do that, except to make people feel left out?"
"Oh. I didn't think of that."
"But we've talked about this! Remember last year when you wanted to bring invitations in to school and I talked to you about not making a big deal about it and keeping it private so other people didn't feel left out?"
Her head is dropped, her voice is tiny. "I didn't think about it. I wasn't trying to make him feel bad. He's not the kind of person who gets hurt feelings, Mom."
"Oh really? How do you know how someone else feels? It doesn't even MATTER. If you know it would make you feel bad to have people talking in front of you about a party you're not invited to, then you don't talk about your party in front of people you're not inviting!" Dammit, I will NOT let her become a mean girl.
Her lip is trembling, her cheeks are flushed with shame. "I just..." she whispers. "I don't think he cared, but when he said that everyone laughed. He knows I have sensitive feelings!"
It finally occurs to me that I might not be addressing the right teachable moment here. Instead of getting her to think more carefully about how her words affect others, I might be teaching her that you sure don't come to Mom if someone has hurt your feelings. For the first time since we left the party, I take a minute to really think about how she's feeling.
"I bet it didn't feel very good when people were laughing at you," I say. Her face crumples.
"Even Olivia laughed! Even Chloe!"
"Oh, honey. You felt like none of your friends were sticking up for you."
She nods, leans into, me and starts crying. I've finally admitted what she is feeling.
"I don't HAVE a boyfriend," she sobs. I understand her well enough to know that unlike a teenager, she's not embarrassed about this fact--she's embarrassed that she's been accused of HAVING a boyfriend. "They all laughed," she repeats.
I rub her back and hold her close. "You were hoping at least one friend would say, 'Hey, knock it off. Leave her alone,'" and she nods vigorously through her tears.
Do I fully get it? Well, I'm not a nine year old girl, so no, this seems like mild teasing and some friendly laughter about it. It still seems like a situation she may have brought on herself by inflicting a certain amount of embarrassment and hurt feelings on someone else in the first place. But I do at last understand that this is every bit as real to her as the kind of things that make my face burn and tears fill my eyes. She doesn't need a lecture about what she did wrong, and she doesn't need my cheerful dismissal of it as no big deal. She needs to know that she can trust me to care when she's feeling hurt, to listen without judging when she's admitting her embarrassment.
I get her a glass of ice water and sit with her for a few minutes. She starts to perk up and tell me about the treasure hunt they did, the brownies they ate. I marvel at how close I came to messing the entire thing up, to forcing her to keep her hurt locked away, and I'm relieved that I woke up in time to change my approach. This will, heaven help us all, not be the last time she brings her drama home.
I was a staunchly anti-drama kid, remaining friends with my friends without all the fighting and making up other groups engaged in. I'm an anti-drama colleague, preferring to stick with the teachers I know and like, but making an effort to not engage in easy gossip or backbiting about teachers outside my circle. My daughter is, if third grade is any indication, going to be in the thick of it. I will certainly talk to her about not instigating and not getting sucked in, but I'll time those conversations for when she's not in the middle of emotional upheaval. I will do my best not to shame her for being sensitive and emotional, and I will try to keep her trust so she keeps communicating with me.
Although it will pass in the blink of an eye, I know that ten to thirteen to sixteen to twenty are very long slogs for kids and parents alike, and I have no way of predicting what it will really be like for us. My hope is that she always can feel safe and heard when she talks to me, and that I will learn to listen without instantly rushing to judge and correct.