October is National Bullying Prevention and Awareness month.
Over the last 10 years I have watched the schools where I teach wage war on bullying. In fact, at this point the term “bullying” is pretty much white noise to high school kids. They know not to bully, but I find that sometimes they don’t know how to be KIND in their world where fitting in matters and every action, word, and perception has social consequences.
I see the start of this social world every day in my elementary age children. My daughters come home and say “Mackenzie and Mary sat by each other at lunch and said I couldn’t sit by them.” Or worse, one day last year my third-grader told me told me about a scene at her lunch table where some boys were laughing at another boy. He got so frustrated that he threw his sandwich across the table. My daughter told me how she moved away from him. I cringed because I could see this scene play out: The sadness and anger of the boy, the other boys jeering and the girls moving away from the outcast.
Here’s the scariest thing of all…In elementary school bullying is out in the open. It’s girls saying “I don’t want to play with you” or kids making fun of another student. In elementary school, the bullying is there to be seen and there are teachers around to see it.
In high school, the bullying is silent, hidden, but just as painful. By high school the bullying is exclusion and rumors and stuff on social media that I can’t even begin to fathom. A student who stands up for another who is being rejected risks being an outcast herself.
Preventing bullying begins long before high school and, just like so many other things, it begins with the messages kids get at home. The struggle for us as parents is to raise children that are above treating others poorly and, maybe more importantly, are willing to stand up for another child in need. Believe me! I am not an expert on this subject, but with my own children I try to reinforce kindness, tolerance, empathy and advocacy.
Almost daily I remind myself of the quote “Be kind. Almost everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” It serves me well with students and also with adults that get on my nerves! It is also an important lesson for children.
The other day my daughter told me about a class that had to leave their room because one boy was screaming at the teacher. I said “Wow. Often when a girl or boy is angry like that, they do not have a happy life at home. They may not have a mommy or daddy who takes care of them the way you do.” I think it’s important to encourage my kids to think about the backstory, the experiences that may cause someone to act the way they do.
There is big-time pressure in middle school and high school to look and act just like everyone else. I have tried to start early with the message that people look very different and that’s ok. In fact, lately I’ve found myself telling my children that we don’t comment on other people’s bodies at all. I’m not sure I like telling my kids that, but it also felt wrong to let them squeeze my stomach and ask why I’m chubby!
I recently saw a great cartoon that said “The world is filled with people who are different from you. You can either be cool and accept them for who they are or you can be a huge a-hole about it.” This is exactly the sentiment I want to express to my kids, but I haven’t admitted to them that I know the A word yet!
Empathy and Advocacy
My husband and I talk to our kids about privilege. We don’t use the word because they are young, but we also aren’t scared of the word. We talk as a family about how we are lucky to have a home and food and to be together. We talk about how kids might feel if they did not have those things. We talk about how everyone is good at different things and how we feel when people notice we are not good at something. We reinforce that having more means that we have the responsibility to help others and to speak up when someone needs us.
That “speaking up” part is hardest of all…. That boy that threw his sandwich in the cafeteria? I told my daughter that it is her job to stand up for the boy. She can tell the other kids to stop. She can move closer instead of backing away.
Will she follow my advice next time? No.
I’m not dumb, I understand the social pressure on kids, even in third grade. But I will keep repeating this advice every chance I get. I will look for ways to model kindness. I tell my children that I expect them to say “hello” to the new kids, and invite others to play when they are all alone. I will continue to talk to my kids about NOTICING others in need and about speaking up when they know something is not right.
Because even when the bullying is silent, it is our job not to be. It is our job to create a world where bullying never begins at all.