He’s Not Mean Because He Likes You … He’s Just Mean

I almost made a serious mistake — one that could land my daughters in the very sort of situations I (and I’m guessing, most parents) would hope to spare them. Of course I didn’t realize I was going down a potentially dangerous path. I was just doing the same thing my own parents and other authority figures did.

You know the story:  Little boy pulls your ponytail, or sticks his tongue out at you, or makes fun of your hair bow. You feel awful. You go home and tell your mom and she says, with a knowing smile, “Honey, he probably has a crush on you. Boys sometimes tease girls they like because they don’t know what else to do. He just needs to grow up a bit.” Some moms might just joke and say, “Get used to it, sweetheart, it only gets worse from here.” I’ll admit, I’ve used both versions. Or close enough to consider myself guilty as charged.

In the back of my mind I’d thought, “Maybe this isn’t the best way to handle this. I don’t think it worked out all that great for me.” But I just couldn’t pull it together enough or, to be blunt, bother, to do differently.

My daughter had come home from school and told me that a boy in her class keeps “saying mean things” to her. My knee-jerk reaction was to tell her he was “only doing it because he likes her.” I took the familiar (and easy, and lazy) route — the one that said, ” If it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for her. I turned out OK.” But… not true. On either count.

And then I read something. Thing is, I can’t remember where. It would sound better to say it was in a reputable magazine. But I have a feeling it was actually in some enjoyable, fluffy “chick lit” book I’d bought for passing the time in waiting rooms and carpool lines. As soon as I can figure it out, I will be sure to give the author her due. But for now, suffice it to say, it was eye-opening!

The author said, and of course I’m paraphrasing, “If you tell your daughters that boys are mean because they like them, they will end up accepting poor treatment — and in extreme cases, abusive treatment — under the misapprehension that this is how boys, and eventually men, show they care.”

This hit me like a ton of bricks. If I’d been a cartoon character, a lightbulb would’ve appeared over my head. As is, I may actually have smacked my forehead and said, “D’oh!” Not only did I feel like a complete moron for (a) having bought this line back when and then taken more than my fair share of crap from more than my fair share of men, but (b) that I would even consider, and had actually begun, feeding my own kids the very same poisonous tripe. OMG!

It was less than a week from the time I read those wise words until my oldest daughter once again complained about the boy “staring at her” and “saying mean things” in the lunch room. Now was my chance to make it right. But what to say? Thing is, he probably is staring at her because she’s gorgeous, and maybe he is and maybe he isn’t picking on her because he “likes her.”

Thing is, if someone can’t simply like you by liking you, then who needs them? There are plenty of nice boys out there, who grow up to be nice men (I married one). Why bother with the jerks? Oh, to have had that alternate view firmly planted in my head back as I grew from ‘tween to teen to woman. To think what I could have avoided.

So I said, “Honey, he’s probably staring at you because he thinks you’re pretty. He’s mean to you because he’s an idiot. Maybe he likes you but doesn’t know how to express it, maybe he doesn’t like you and feels he needs to express it. Doesn’t matter. Stay polite, and stay away from him. If he comes to you to say mean things, tell him ‘I am not interested in anything you have to say.’ Then walk away and ignore him. Spend your time and energy on the nice kids.”

Clearly, not all things old-school are superior. Here, for once, I’m Promodernmom. This is a case where the old way is certainly not the better way. I hope I’m instilling in my girls a knowledge that mean is mean — whether he thinks you’re pretty or not. For every mean boy who thinks you’re pretty and swears his undying love but can’t bother to treat you with consistent respect and kindness, there is a nice boy who also thinks you’re pretty, and will be someone who deserves your attention and affection.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the lure of the bad boy — those guys who flatter and promise, then disappoint and wound — can be entirely negated by telling young girls to keep away from jerks. Of course not. But at least I won’t be planting the notion that those boys (and men) who treat them badly while declaring their love are only doing so because that is how they show their affection. Because it’s just not true. He’s not mean because he likes you. He’s mean because he’s mean. Whether he likes you is irrelevant.

(originally posted Feb. 26, 2010)

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