the smell of my desperation has become a stench

Figuring it out

One afternoon during Leta’s second grade year at school she brought home a special certificate decorated with her school’s mascot. It was a reward for having committed an act of kindness, and when I asked her how she had earned it she shrugged her shoulders like seven-year-olds do when they are focused on the cartoon they want to watch after a long day at school and not on anything coming out of your mouth.

The key to get your kid to pay attention is to talk to them only when your mouth is full of chocolate.


The following day when I walked her into school I pulled her teacher aside and asked her if she could explain. Apparently Leta was standing in line with her class along the hallway to the cafeteria when some older kids walked by and started picking on someone who was short for her age. Leta immediately stepped in and told them to stop, that what they were doing wasn’t right, and then she guided her classmate away from the scene. One of the lunch aids witnessed the whole thing and informed Leta’s teacher.

I had to resist dancing like Elaine Benes right there in that classroom.

Pride doesn’t even begin to describe what I felt, but the emotions I have about her generosity are so much more intricate than that. Yes, we have been very diligent about teaching both girls to treat everyone with respect (one of the kids is having difficulty with this skill but I won’t name names MARLO), but Leta has always been very sensitive and in tune with other people’s sensitivities. When Marlo gets upset, Leta feels it in her own body, and not just because Marlo likes to swing her limbs in the direction of other people. She took up for her classmate because she knew it was the right thing to do, but I’m sure part of her motivation was because she could physically feel the other girl’s pain.

That’s a very special attribute to possess in a personality, and one of the many beautiful things about my daughter. People who know Leta have told me that they sensed this about her the first time they met her. Her gentleness is as present as her skin.

But it’s also quite scary. In kindergarten and first grade, kids sometimes say mean things because they don’t yet have a filter in place. They don’t know they’re being mean. They understand what it means to be hurt, but they don’t know that they may be inflicting pain. That’s why we don’t round all of them up and bus them to prison even though we really, really want to.

And then something terrible happens. Filters develop but so does the capacity and the desire to hurt. Kids start to say mean things because they want a reaction, maybe out of a need to feel powerful, maybe out of an insecurity, maybe because they are mimicking the behavior of the adults in their life. Maybe they once saw a comment thread on YouTube and thought, “Hey! I want to try that.”

Whatever the reason, there it is and it’s awful. And my sensitive almost nine-year-old is out there with all the other almost nine-year-olds, all potential targets for each other’s evolving sense of self.

When I was in fifth grade my dominant Hamilton genes had prevented me from developing at a rate similar to every other girl in my class, and after being teased relentlessly for my lack of curves I begged my mother to get me a padded bra. Sadly, there did not exist in 1985 the technology that we have today in terms of curve enhancement. If you wore a padded bra you looked like you were wearing a padded bra, except the one my mother bought me made it look like I was stuffing my bra. I don’t know what those kids were thinking as they pelted me with wadded up tissues one afternoon as I walked from the back of the bus to get off at my stop, why they needed me to feel so terrible about myself, but it worked.

I wonder what they would have said if I had asked them: “What are you thinking? Why are you doing this?” If they had been forced to analyze the emotion behind the desire to hurt me, would it have made them hesitate to do something similar in the future? Or were they too young for that kind of self-exploration?

I thought of that incident when Leta came home a couple of months ago visibly upset because someone had made fun of her glasses. I hugged her, told her I was sorry that this had happened, and instead of telling her to ignore the whole thing, instead of just writing it off as “sometimes people are mean,” I asked her why she thought that kid had done this. She kept shaking her head and saying she didn’t know why, she didn’t understand, a lot of kids at school have glasses but the girl hadn’t made fun of theirs. So I tried to explain that it had nothing to do with Leta or her glasses. It had everything to do with something going on in that kid’s life, and she took it out on Leta. She is still trying to figure herself out, I told her. And in her confusion, she tried to hurt her.

“Trying to figure herself out?” she asked.

“Well, just like you learn how to add and subtract and multiply numbers,” I said, “there are a lot of things to learn about yourself, especially as you get older.”

“I don’t get what you’re trying to say.”

“For instance,” I continued, “someone could have said something mean to her, and it didn’t make her feel good. And maybe she thought that saying something mean to someone else would make her feel better.”

“But that’s not fair to me!” she pointed out like the lawyer she will one day be.

“No, it’s not. And if this is what happened, she probably felt good for a little bit, but it didn’t fix her problem. In fact, she probably went right back to feeling bad. Hopefully she learns that being mean to you wasn’t the answer. Hopefully she’s figuring that out.”

She finally nodded and I told her she did a good thing by not bopping her right on the head.

Her life will be filled with these encounters (if my own is any indication), and when the inevitable happens, when someone tries to hurt her again and succeeds, this will always be the discussion I want to have with her. I won’t ever tell her to just get over it, I won’t ever wave my hand and tell her that she needs to choose not to be hurt because that is probably the most ridiculous thing you could say to someone as sensitive as she is. But if she can explore why and where someone has to be to act in unkind ways, that it has absolutely nothing to do with her, then that process can help her move forward. I happen to know that it works.


This post brought to you by Secret Mean Stinks. Gang Up for Good here.

  • Amber Gregory

    2013/01/14 at 9:58 am

    This is beautiful, Heather.

  • Lisa

    2013/01/14 at 10:00 am

    A wanna be mean girl 6 yr old told my daughter she was “too skinny for the monkey bars” NOT COOL! Spent the evening explaining how everyone comes in different sizes and she is perfect the way she is. Then I asked how this girl became the authority on who can do monkey bars. Turns out she can’t even get across them. My skinny girl can go backwards, forwards and skip bars (if only she could be as dedicated to learning to read as she is to her daily recess training regimen).

    Put an entirely new spin on the conversation. Skinny Girl 1, Mean Girl 0

  • Daddy Scratches

    2013/01/14 at 10:05 am

    This is the kind of talk I plan to have with my kids if something like this happens … you know, right after I finish beating up the other kid.

  • Cranky Toddler

    2013/01/14 at 10:09 am

    I’m grateful for kids like Leta and mothers like you. So many people are going to have their spirits lifted by her kind words. That’s an amazing legacy!

  • Cecily Kellogg

    2013/01/14 at 10:17 am

    Okay. I’m crying. Thank you.

  • Charlie N Andy

    2013/01/14 at 10:24 am

    Self-awareness starts young. If we make it a priority to grant others the space to be, even above our own, then we can start fix some of the senseless bullshit that happens in our world. Also, I would’ve stuffed a sock in my underwear if it would’ve meant I was treated better. So ridiculous, but I would’ve done anything to feel cool.

  • Lauren3

    2013/01/14 at 10:26 am

    Great read, Heather. And it looks like that campaign is going to do some good. I watch enough TV to know that Demi Lovato went through some tough shit, and it’s nice to see she responded to it by being part of campaigns like this rather than going the Lohan route.

  • Lindsay Hansen

    2013/01/14 at 10:28 am

    Wow. How can I be an adult an still need to hear this? I’m constantly amazed by the comfort I get when I come to see you. The irreverent ramblings and the quiet wisdom…love it all!

  • Tib

    2013/01/14 at 10:38 am

    When I was in sixth grade I had a school sponsored therapist tell my mother that it was inappropriate that when people were angry and reacted angrily towards me for me to understand at that age that it wasn’t about me it was about their own issues. Even some adults don’t get it, so keep enforcing that with Leta. It is a valuable gift knowing that other people’s perceptions of us are not about us but about themselves.

  • LisaCrazyAdventuresinParenting

    2013/01/14 at 10:38 am

    Fantastically said, Heather!

  • Zach Rosenberg

    2013/01/14 at 10:40 am

    But wait! You missed an even more-important thing than the fact that your daughter stood up for someone; she didn’t even know why she was awarded an act of kindness certificate. While we write this off as “kids don’t care,” it’s better (for her and you) to realize that doing good things isn’t something your daughter does to be rewarded. She’s not in it for that sweet-ass certificate, and she’s not in it for the praise – or, in other words, a physical and emotional reward, the big driver for most kids. She just did it to do it and went on with her life. Holy shit that’s important. Being nice, being just and being brave are just “what she does,” without expectation.

    Don’t ignore that. It’s important, sure, that you later say “great job! You’re awesome!” But in the meantime, having a kid that does good without coercion and expectation of reward is exactly what the world needs more of. Or, exactly of what the world needs more. Of. Or…is exactly what of the world needs. more. God damned prepositions.

  • kent williams

    2013/01/14 at 10:40 am

    You might pass along to Leta that her glasses make her look as though she should be editing Vanity Fair. And that ‘editing Vanity Fair’ is a good thing.

  • Milusha

    2013/01/14 at 10:42 am

    That’s wonderful to hear that Leta, at her age knows and realizes the importance of helping someone who might not be able to stand up for themselves. We all (hopefully) try and teach our children that exact thing. I have a 3.5 year old, very intuitive, very shy boy. He is going into Junior KG and I have a little bit of fear that something similar might happen to him. He is too young and too well-mannered to realize that he needs to stand-up for himself. Hopefully there will be a girl/boy just like Leta that might help! 🙂

  • jess crawford!

    2013/01/14 at 10:51 am

    I’m pretty sure Leta is braver than I am. What a tremendous kid.

  • Jessica McFadden

    2013/01/14 at 10:54 am

    It is seriously beautiful that Leta processed what she learned and experienced, and used it to stand up for a friend. People spend their entire lives striving for empathy and self-confidence, and your girl has both. Wonderful.

  • natalie

    2013/01/14 at 10:59 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I was picked on through elementary and middle school, and the only thing that got me through it was the vague understanding that there was some issue in their lives, and for whatever reason, they felt compelled to take it out on me. Aside from helping Leta learn to not be affected by the poor attitudes of others, it will also instill in her a great sense of compassion. Even today when someone is being a total shit to me, I feel a little bad for them, because I know deep down they’re hurting so much more than I am in that moment.

  • Julie Taylor McDonald

    2013/01/14 at 11:05 am

    Oh. My. Word. My daughter is the same way. I’ve struggled with how to be helpful and supportive, and this really nails it. Thank you!

  • Shiri

    2013/01/14 at 11:27 am

    Well done. I was a super sensitive kid and everything you say you don’t want to do if exactly what my dad always did. Which means, as a relatively sensitive 30 year old, rather than automatically try to puzzle out the why, my first response to feeling hurt is to feel defensive and self-defeating about feeling hurt. You’re doing the right thing.

  • Jodi Landals-Landry

    2013/01/14 at 12:06 pm

    I have to share my “amazing kid” story. We moved from our small town when my oldest was in 5th grade. A dear friend happened to work at the school we were moving from. Once we got settled I got a call from her. “Do you know what Christopher had been doing for a younger boy at school school?” No, not a clue. “Every day he brought a quarter from home & used it to buy a special needs boy a PB sandwich. This is all that boy will eat & he always worried he would go hungry” Now I am tearing up. “When he knew he was moving he came to me and made me promise that I would always be sure this boy got a sandwich, and he gave me $10.75, all of his saved chore money, so I would have the money to do it for a long time” Now I am a crying mess…proud, but still a mess. When I asked my son about this, and why he had never shared this with me he told me…it was just the right thing to do. And you always told me to do the right thing so I thought you would just know. He is 24 now, and still that same wonderful, compasionate boy. I could not be more proud of him.

  • Rita Arens

    2013/01/14 at 12:10 pm

    I was almost 35 when I realized I had to get over my need for everyone to like me if I wanted to live with my anxiety disorder. My girl is really sensitive and empathetic, too, and I’ve decided my number one priority as her mother is to teach her to gain distance on the world, since I struggle with it so much. I’ll let her father teach her to cook and and drive.

  • Robin Cole

    2013/01/14 at 12:14 pm

    I was likewise a super-sensitive child, and the kids teased me quite a bit. Growing up in small town Utah as a non-Mormon (not even a Catholic nor an Adventist, either – I was a heathenish nothing) was difficult. I wish Leta the best, and I hope those kids don’t smush her down. Her glasses are chic, btw.

  • frabjouslinz

    2013/01/14 at 12:36 pm

    I wish someone had given my mom these tools when I was a kid, because it might have helped a lot. As it is, I will thank you for saying this, so I can remember it to use for my own kids. It’s a lot more helpful than “just ignore them.” Thanks.

  • Melanie Ching

    2013/01/14 at 12:47 pm

    Awesome. Leta is good people!

  • Kim's Kitchen Sink

    2013/01/14 at 1:54 pm

    This was so incredibly lovely.

  • Erin

    2013/01/14 at 1:57 pm

    Wonderful post. My nine year-old is having some health problems right now and needs the assistance of a walker. Her biggest gripe about all of it is not how her body is hurting physically, but how hurtful the stares and whispers are. Thank you for helping me remember not to advise her to say things like, “take a picture…it’ll last longer”, which is what I really want to do. Teaching my kids how to do right while standing up for themselves is a HUGE challenge.

  • Linda McIver

    2013/01/14 at 2:36 pm

    That is the most awesome advice I have ever seen for when people say mean things. My 9 year old will be reading this today. Thank you!

  • HeatherArmstrong

    2013/01/14 at 2:38 pm

    Thank yo so much for sharing that. I’m tearing up, too.

  • LDD

    2013/01/14 at 3:09 pm

    LOVE this. Love it.

  • Tina Beveridge

    2013/01/14 at 3:46 pm

    Zach said exactly what I was thinking. She didn’t do it for the reward, she did it because it was the right thing to do. Atta girl, Leta.

  • KathyB

    2013/01/14 at 4:25 pm

    Wow, I’m still dealing with the fact that Leta is almost nine. She is a delight to watch growing up. Vicariously proud of her act of kindness. Marlo will get more civilized along the way. Second children have the luxury of staying babies longer that first borns.

  • Pascha

    2013/01/14 at 4:36 pm

    This is a lovely post, and a wonderful campaign. And maybe people will be annoyed that I even ask this, but can you put a disclaimer at the top about sponsored posts? Partway through a sponsored post I can usually tell that it is because your writing changes, but it would still be nice to have a heads up. My nit-picking doesn’t change how fantastic this story is.

  • Michelle

    2013/01/14 at 4:47 pm

    Thank you. I might be thirty-years-old, but I needed to hear this today.

  • Michelle

    2013/01/14 at 4:48 pm

    Oh–and Leta’s glasses are awesome. Tell her I said that!

  • tksinclair

    2013/01/14 at 5:11 pm

    Unfortunately as a kid who could “feel everything” growing up can be tough. There is a lot of feeling to be felt…OH, and watch your step…that’s barbed wire around my heart!


    2013/01/14 at 5:22 pm

    This story remind me when I was in her ago. At that time my mother always try to protect me!


    2013/01/14 at 5:25 pm

    When I was a kid I want to be adult, when I am a adult , I want to be a kid again! At least there are less headaches.

  • Heather

    2013/01/14 at 5:50 pm

    You are amazing and so is your daughter! Thank you for sharing this.

  • Jennifer Davis

    2013/01/14 at 6:00 pm

    Highly recommend “The Highly Sensitive Person” by author Elaine Aron. Read it 🙂

  • Marilyn Shipley

    2013/01/14 at 6:12 pm

    Don’t agree with Zach. You didn’t miss anything and neither did Leta. It’s a sad reflection on society that we feel people need to be rewarded for being kind, when it’s something that comes naturally but is then knocked out of a lot of people before they even get to school. My daughter, with not a spiteful bone anywhere in her body, went off to school where she encountered bullying of the worst type. I wish I’d have tried home schooling her instead but didn’t have the confidence myself. I was always told school days are the best of your life but they’re not, certainly for a lot of kids. Things that happened in school are carried around with us for life. It’s not good. But your daughter is, and hopefully people like her will be able to teach the mean ones that it’s much better to be kind. Oh, and I might have shed a tear or two whilst reading your post, too. …

  • L. Magnus

    2013/01/14 at 8:05 pm

    Holy moley this brought tears. Good job you!

  • L. Magnus

    2013/01/14 at 8:09 pm

    This is a great story & a great kid. Also: good advice for this grown-ass woman who still takes things personally when people are mean.

  • Norton McGregory

    2013/01/14 at 8:55 pm

    I can still remember a horrible day in tenth grade when several girls in my gym class teamed together to taunt me, and yelling to them, “Why? Why do you do this? You don’t even know me, why can’t you leave me alone?” and being stunned and nauseated by the pure malicious hatred those questions seemed to inspire in them. The questions made them angrier. It was truly awful.
    I hope all this attention to bullying changes the way schools treat it. I wouldn’t go through that again for anything.

  • Kristan

    2013/01/14 at 10:11 pm

    I’ve had this page open all day, trying to figure out what to write in response to such a touching post. In short, this is every parent’s dream and every parent’s fear. That their child will be sensitive and kind. That their child will be vulnerable and hurt.

    I don’t have any wisdom to offer — though you and Leta seem to be doing just fine — but I want to thank you for sharing this story, and of course for doing your best to raise such a wonderful kid. (She obviously deserves credit too, but I’ll save that praise, to be delivered firsthand when she starts her own blog someday, hehe.)

  • William Armstrong Black

    2013/01/14 at 10:55 pm

    LOVE THIS! That’s all I really can say….

  • Natasha Batsford

    2013/01/15 at 5:26 am

    After the program I watched on BBC last night I’m no longer surprised that this would happen in your city. I had no idea there was such an emphasis on personal appearance amongst young Mormons! And just FYI, I am SO stealing that explanation when my little boy next gets walloped by some big kid!

  • Forrester L

    2013/01/15 at 8:25 am

    Thank you for sharing the story. I am in therapy working on my co-dependent behavior and this is a reminder to me to talk with my kids about these things in hopes of them not becoming the one the hurts, the one who is hurt, or the one who tries to fix the hurt all the time. My therapist told me yesterday when people feel bad they are looking for situations (real or created) where they prove what they believe to be true about themselves. Its about them and I (we) dont have to accept it as an attack on us. Please tell Leta we are all trying to figure it out!

  • smithshack71

    2013/01/15 at 8:34 am

    Good job having a real conversation with her instead of just blowing it off to – Ignore it. Being a kid isn’t easy, but you’re giving her the tools to help make it easier. (Fist Bump)

  • Becky

    2013/01/15 at 8:42 am

    Congratulations and thank you. I’ll be saving this one for my daughter as I don’t know that I won’t just tell her to bop that bully on the head.

  • linhtuty

    2013/01/15 at 8:46 am

    ance of a walker. Her biggest gripe about all of it is not how her body
    is hurting physically, but how hurtful the stares and whispers are.
    Thank you for helping me remember not to advise her to say things like,
    “take a picture…it’ll last longer”, which is what I really want to do.
    Teaching my kids how to do right while standing up for themselves is a
    HUGE challenge.
    May loc nuoc Kangaroo

  • Stephanie

    2013/01/15 at 11:03 am

    I guess I did not realize Leta and my daughter are the same age until now. She looks so much older. But this struck a nerve with me. My 7 year old is teeny tiny for her age weighing in at only 35 pounds and coming up to most kid’s shoulders in her class. She’s the one standing with the first graders in the Christmas program – the one in the front. Your daughter did a brave thing – she may not know it now, but she was brave. She stood up for her beliefs and what is right. Some adults don’t even do that. So good job momma for raising such a good kid. It’s these moments that you want to bottle up and keep forever. In a box.

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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