School is starting this week all around our area. Parents are running to and fro making sure their children have everything they need on that list of supplies, making sure they still have uniform compliant clothing in their drawers, checking in on any new rules and teachers, and generally driving themselves batty with minutia.
More and more these days, however, there are a few things we need to provide our children with for school that we won’t. Or can’t, in some cases. What they really seem to need is the ability to enter school with confidence, a bit of psychological toughness and some humility.
Or, more clearly, either the capability to endure being bullied, or the values that keep one from becoming the bully.
Yes, I recognize that schools far and wide have what we now call “bully programs,” which in most cases dedicate time in the school week to sitting around talking about being nice to one another and telling on the bullies. Sound good? I’ll let you in on a secret. It doesn’t work.
Here’s why : every possible protection in our school system is given to the bully but almost no consideration to the bullied. Most teachers and administrators don’t want to deal with this, for good reason. The liability in confronting the bully and his or her family can be enormous, especially in a private school where there are entanglements with personal connections and potential for financial support. In the case of the bullied, there can be legal concern if someone is physically or emotionally injured. Best that no teacher, aide, or administrator has knowledge of the situation prior to any escalation. Plausible deniability means less monetary damage.
I’m not blaming teachers and administrators per se. After sifting through bullying issues and consequences, for myself years ago and more recently with both of my girls, I have been unable to discover any real workable solution to this problem. I have learned much about the bully phenomenon, however, and as school starts again, I feel compelled to share some of this with parents. So:
1. THIS HAPPENS IN YOUR SCHOOL. I don’t care where you send your child to school. Bullying happens there. If you think Catholic or Christian school is exempt somehow because children have classes in religion, are compelled to do service and practice the commandments, you are dead wrong. In fact, such schools, which rely heavily on parents for fundraising, donations and volunteer time, may struggle with this even more. Kids are smart when it comes to knowing what they can and can’t get away with.
2. BULLYING CAN BE MORE ABOUT HOME THAN SCHOOL. Carefully examine your child’s home life and experiences outside of school. Bullying is a learned behavior. Is your child in regular contact with someone who puts him or her or other people down? Are they berated, teased or laughed at? Kids imitate. Chances are, if your child bullies someone else, they have experienced it along the way, or have witnessed someone they love doing it.
3. ITS NOT OVER WHEN YOU SEPARATE THE BULLY FROM THE VICTIM Kids who get bullied don’t forget about it. They carry the damage with them, and constantly question their worth and ability as a result. Many will not engage in activities they enjoy for fear they will fail and be laughed at. They will not try new things, speak up, read aloud, or volunteer, and will act completely different at school than at home. They stunt their own personal development to avoid mean kids. I know many parents who think the answer to this is to remove their child from a school where they are bullied. But the stress of starting over at a new school after being abused by other kids only causes more problems. I know a parent who keeps moving her child between schools because she thinks teachers are mean to her when they reprimand her for bad behavior. Now children in multiple schools dread interacting with this child!
4. IT HURTS THEIR CHANCES TO ACHIEVE In the classroom, kids who experience abuse or trauma are known to go into a type of security mode where they think about nothing but avoiding additional damage. They’re learning ability actually shuts off. Catholics, I learned about this during my mandatory reporter training for child abuse. And I’ve experienced it with one of my daughters. After years of above average standardized test scores, hers fell to well below average in less than one year. But she could tell me all the answers correctly when I worked with her at home. We have a lot to make up academically this year. It’s simply not fair for any child to be terrified of their school work because other kids tease them for getting an answer wrong or taking longer to complete an assignment.
5. BULLIED KIDS ARE NOT WHINERS OR WIMPS I often hear adults say kids who claim they are bullied are just wimpy and need to suck it up. Don’t believe it. These kids are brave and walk into the lions den everyday where people who are supposed to help them simply cannot for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes they do start to believe everyone is a bully, and have to be taught that not every bad thing that happens in their lives is aimed directly at them. But don’t underestimate them. Many are bullied because they are exceptional in some way or talented in another. Or even because they’re ordinary. I’ve seen kids bullied simply because they have both a mother and a father in their household. Or because their parents took them to Walt Disney World. Kids don’t have to have special needs, or be unconventional on some way to be bullied. It can be as simple as being the new kid.
The truth is kids can find lots of reasons not to like someone else when they regularly see adults disrespecting other people. As the adults, we probably don’t even realize that we do it. Do we favor some of our kids friends because they’re smarter, more athletic, more attractive, better dressed, more involved, whatever? Do we disrespect our kids and their brothers and sisters in the way we discipline them? Or maybe we make fun of random people we encounter during the day and invite our kids to laugh with us? You know, that weirdly dressed woman in Wal-Mart? The kid on the ball team who never gets in to play? The grouchy old man down the street?
Take some time early this school year to remind your children that everyone has value, no matter how different or odd they may seem. Every child in their class and school deserves their respect, if not their friendship, and the opportunity to come to school every day without fear.
There may be little we can do to erase bullying’s impact once it occurs. But we can do a lot about our adult behavior, and how it influences the way our kids treat others. And we can serve as a reminder to them every day that the world takes all kinds of people to turn, and that everyone of them, rich, poor, cool, nerdy, acne-prone, tomboy, and on and on, deserves the most basic respect.