ShePonders: Mean Words


“I recognize that third grade boys are bad mirrors for the self-esteem of a young girl. So I called in better mirrors to weed out the mean words meant to marginalize. I wanted her to be seen truly and, maybe more importantly, to see herself truly.”

She burst into my room, darted for the bed and held fast to my side. Then an explosion of tears scattered across her chocolate cheeks. Through the breath-robbing sobs she said, “They’re mean to me, Mom, so mean to me!

She looked me in the eyes and shouted, “I hate third grade! They’re so mean in third grade!”

And then came the soft spoken confession: for weeks, a group of boys taunted her on the playground at recess calling her “ugly,” making fun of her speech impediment and even teasing her for those lovely, long dreadlocks and dark skin.

And then my heart exploded. Tears stained my white cheeks and all I could do was hold her tight and shower her with incessant kisses. Because it’s hard to find words strong enough to counter such meanness meted out by third grade boys.

But once I caught my breath, once her breathing had slowed and she relaxed deeper into my arms, I told her that she is beautiful, smart and strong. This is our mantra, and as I repeated it again she started to whisper the words with me. But even our special mantra couldn’t erase the hurt I saw.

My daughter is nine years old. She’s the most fearless girl I know. Brave, strong and unflappable by our bicultural life, by her own hearing challenges and learning disabilities. She works hard, delights her teachers with her constant cheer and has become quite chatty in recent weeks. But when no one was looking, boys belittled her on the playground.

As I did all the things a vigilant mother does—investigate, talk to a witness (my son), connect with teachers and such—I learned this had been happening for weeks. My daughter tried to handle this herself for four weeks. My son said he noticed her coming in from recess crying, wiping away the tears so her teacher wouldn’t see, wouldn’t ask. See, that’s my girl, a high threshold for pain and a work ethic that kept her trying to fix this recess rumble. She mustered all the resilience she could find, until she could find no more and launched herself into my arms at long last.

The seeds of marginalization are planted this early, this young. How those boys see my daughter in her radiant blackness, dreads dancing to and fro as she runs past them. How they think they can mistreat someone with a hearing aid, someone who works hard to say every word. How they can so easily label her and then leave her out.

And while this happened day after day, the young witnesses stayed silent and the grown-ups didn’t see any of it unfold. So my daughter’s plight became an invisible one, and she was becoming less seen with each instance of belittling. This is how marginalization starts to happen—slow, quiet and almost unnoticed.

Until she had enough.

Until she came to the end of her own resources.

Until she decided to tell someone.

So I listened, comforted, then advocated. But I knew it wasn’t enough. Because planted in the soil of her heart was that seed of marginalization – the one that says you’re not our kind of pretty, you talk funny, you’re different from us, you’re not good enough to play with us. If I left it there, untouched, that little seed could grow roots in her soul, making her feel less than the strong, robust, vibrant girl she is. I wanted to act before those words were internalized, buried too deep to unearth.

But I also knew I could not pluck out that seed alone. I needed more hands to dig deep, turn the soil and cultivate something better in her spirit. So I called in all the women I know who love my daughter. I asked them to send cards, telling her how they see her. I wanted my girl to be known and seen. I wanted her to hold tangible reminders of how beautiful she is in her own hands—so she could remember when someone else might try to belittle her.

I recognize that third grade boys are bad mirrors for the self-esteem of a young girl. So I called in better mirrors to weed out the mean words meant to marginalize. I wanted her to be seen truly and, maybe more importantly, to see herself truly.

“Come forth, be seen,” says the prophet. Isaiah knew that liberation involves coming forward from the margins and regaining visibility in the community. Walter Brueggemann, preaching on Isaiah 49, says it this way, “The power of the gospel is to authorize all persons, all the marginated, to be fully present and visible in the public process of life.” I think this gospel goodness is meant even for our kids as they get their first taste of life on the margins of the playground. They need to come out and be seen.

Cards have already arrived. There’s one from me, of course, then one from her godmother in California, and some from neighbors down the road. She reads them aloud, beaming. She pulls out her special box of cards and blushes, smiles and twirls with girlish delight. Because, I believe, she’s seen by these women and that feels good all the way down to her toes. And being seen is an antidote to marginalization.

More cards are coming—from an auntie at Harvard Law, aunties in Vancouver, Kansas City, Los Angeles and Houston. More women ensuring my daughter is seen and any remaining hint of meanness rooted out. Oh, it does take a village!

Today I read something from Shane Claiborne, written in response to a question about non-violence, When a community responds to injustice together, there are a lot more options for the marginalized and abused.” I thought of my daughter, and the women rallying around her. They each are helping bring healing to hurt places in my daughter’s heart, reaching depths that I alone cannot reach. Our community joins us in response to mean words meant to marginalize, and they create new options for my daughter to talk about her experience, reclaim her sense of self and remember she’s loved as she is, in all her beauty.

Together we are fighting against injustice in its infancy. We refuse to let mean words marginalize the playground … or anywhere else our sons and daughters roam.
Image Credit: Kelley Nikondeha

Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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Kelley Nikondeha
  • Mama Zen

    This moved me so much. I’m going to do a card for my little girl today!

    • It amazed me how much she loved the card I wrote her… in simple words, in block letters, but she took it in and still re-reads it! Our girls need those words from us – maybe more than we realize in the comings and goings of our weeks. So glad you’re going to write her!

  • Claire

    Brilliant, Kelley! I love this: “When a community responds to injustice together, there are a lot more options for the marginalized and abused.” It is sad that marginalization begins at such an early age but when a village comes together as a stronger truth than the lie what a great opportunity to use bad for good. Love how you handled this. xo

  • Mickey

    EVERY mom should read this. It should become the basis for a small book. To think – maybe you would not have known — What an amazing creative way to counter hurt and marginalization. I imagine many parents reading this and nodding as if to say “I could do that.” Hurt for your daughter. She is beautiful – I know kids who have been heavy and as adults (though thin) are still damaged. Had parents had the tool you offer in this post . . . .

    • Thanks so much, Mickey. We are all learning together, I believe. Glad I can be part of the conversation!

  • pastordt

    WHAT AN ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT IDEA. Thank you, Kelley, for loving so well, so faithfully. And that girl? She is a pistol and a gift and I thank God for her strength AND for her willingness to cry out for help. We need both things to maneuver our way through life. And this experience will be part of the slow-Spirit-building in her heart that will empower her to be one who sees those on the margins, who sees and hears and helps.

    • Diana, I am so glad she finally did cry out for help. Breaks my heart she did it alone for weeks, but at least she knew she could come to me when she reached the end of her rope/resources. Now we talk about it and she knows that she’s not alone and not without advocates and a tribe of people around her. I pray she does grow into an advocate in her own right! Thanks, friend.

  • Christiana

    I am taking notes on your beautiful example of love to your absolutely gorgeous daughter.

  • Kelley, this is beautiful. What a fantastic idea! My heart breaks for your daughter, that she should question her beauty and worth at such a young age. But then when I stopped to think about it, I realized I unknowingly did the same thing at her age. I never breathed a word of anything I internalized to anyone, not even my beloved mother. It is no surprise that depression manifested in junior high because of that. I’m so glad your daughter told you what was going on. I’m so glad she has so many wise and gifted women in her life that can now pour into her and speak truth and love over her. She is beautiful! It radiates from every picture I’ve seen of her. I hope someday I’ll get to tell her that in person.

    • She’ll be waiting for you in Burundi this summer… You are going to love her!

  • Margo Mohney

    This is a wonderful post, and such a fabulous idea of how to encourage and love and strengthen your daughter! I would have loved someone to have done that for me when I was young! Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Kerry

    Tears here – what a beautiful post. Sending hugs and love to your precious daughter. She is beautiful and I can see her light. You’re a good good mama. I hope more and more people SEE what is happening and help it CHANGE. We CAN create change. You are helping to do that right now.

  • You hug that wee girl for me and tell her that her Canadian Aunties love her so much.

  • Oh my. Stunning Post, Kelley. You are a good, good mama.

  • Tell your daughter that even though I’ve never met her, I can already tell that she is wonderful and radiant and above all, strong. Tell her that her strengh belies her tiny body and tell her from me that she has so much to be proud of.

  • This gave me chills. What a gift you are giving your daughter. Affirmation. The ability to trust truth, to plant your roots there, and let the lies blow away like chaff in the wind.

  • How can I sen her a card? I would love to do that! All the way from New Zealand.

    • How kind! Email me ( and I’ll provide an address!

  • Cat

    It does take a village! It does take many people speaking truth and grace and whispering healing words, over and over. I love this. I love this for its simple truth and its ushering in of the kingdom, all in one breath. This is going in the memory bank for that awful day my daughters come home, tears streaming down their cheeks, broken hearted. I will know what to do. I will call out to their village, and watch them run, arms wide open. Thank you, thank you. (And, totally excited that you are hitting my home town for surrender 2013. Working on babysitters so I can hear you speak. Eek)

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  • chris

    When I saw your family picture I saw four faces of love. How beautiful.

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  • I fear my daughters having a moment like this, but I love the truth you have here: we can respond, with love and fearlessness, to the messages that the world give us that we are not enough. We can be the voices singing that drown out the ugly. Thank you for sharing this, Kelley.

  • Beth

    One thing that helped me as a bullied kid was when the teacher in 6th grade had us write “who am I?” stories about each other. One boy had my name and everyone had to guess who his story was about after he read it aloud. He wasn’t one of the bullies, just one I thought was indifferent. The story wasn’t full of praise, but it recognized me for who I was (kind of quiet, smart, wears dresses most of the time…) in a non-judgmental way. It was real and refreshing, and helped to hear from a peer (important by the time the 6th grade rolls around). More teachers should try this kind of thing.

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