An older boy told my son he’s a terrible singer and it shattered him. But even worse, it has the potential to ruin much more than his day.
Will, 7, has been practicing the Star Spangled Banner in music class for weeks. He sings it constantly around the house, to the point no one can question his commitment to practice. Whether or not he’s any good is immaterial, because he’s passionate about it and sings the song with fervor and glee. Also, he’s fucking 7, so there’s no reason to go all Simon Cowell on him.
We were at a party with kids we didn’t know, and they all went off to play together. After a few minutes, it was apparent they discovered the karaoke machine set up in the basement. I heard the little ones singing songs from Frozen, Princess and the Frog, and The Little Mermaid to name a few. But then I heard the familiar strains of our country’s national anthem, and I smiled as I listened to Will belt out the words with gusto.
But when he trudged upstairs alone a few minutes later his lip was trembling and he was fighting back tears. He retreated to the corner of an empty room, so I went to him and asked what was wrong.
“That boy said I’m a horrible singer and I should never sing again because I’m so bad, and nobody wants to hear it,” he said, eyes welling up with tears.
My first instinct, like all parents have when their kids are subject to unnecessary cruelty, was to find the little bastard and scare the life out of him. But since I’m an adult and that’s a crime, I had to come up with a better plan.
It’s easy to resort to platitudes at times like this. “Don’t listen to him” and “You’re fantastic” and “It doesn’t matter what other people think” are all old favorites and standbys, and could easily be implemented in situations like these. But I think, even at 7, kids know when you’re placating them with recycled advice that doesn’t truly take their hurt into account. So instead of trotting out those old lines, I asked him a question.
“Did he sing?” I asked.
“Did who sing?”
“The boy who made fun of you? Did he sing anything down there?”
“No, he didn’t sing. Why?”
I told my son the other boy didn’t sing because he’s a coward. And he felt so bad about being too scared to do something that he had to resort to insults to make himself feel better about being gutless. Whether someone sings well or not is far less important than having the intestinal fortitude to put yourself out there, and that’s what Will did. He took a chance and decided to risk it by singing in front of an audience, while this other boy took the easy way out and simply criticized others while watching safely from the sidelines.
The world has too many critics and not enough doers.
My boy, like his father, is sensitive. In fairness, sometimes too sensitive. But not yesterday. Yesterday he had a right to be upset and hurt. I hate that my kids have to face this stuff so early, inescapable and necessary though it may be. The thought of them giving up on something they love because of cruel words from others just kills me, and it’s unsettling how years of parenting can seemingly be undone with one off-handed remark.
I’m sure the boy who said it isn’t bad, and kids say mean and stupid things to each other. It happens and I get it. But as I watched a carefree kid with a love of singing tell me he’s never going to sing again, my heart sank. Needless to say, he didn’t go back downstairs to join the karaoke party.
Later, during our car ride back home, I saw his face in the rearview mirror still full of sadness. So I grabbed my phone and quickly called up the national anthem and played it at full blast.
“Dad, don’t. I know what you’re doing,” he said.
I pretended I didn’t hear him as I sang along loudly. He rolled his eyes and went back to playing his Nintendo 3DS, determined not to give in to my ploy. But halfway through the song I saw his lips moving, mouthing the words. Then, toward the end, I could hear him. Softly, but I heard him singing.
“…and the home, of the, brave.”
Always be brave, kid. It’s not easy, but you’ll be better for it. I’m proud of you.