Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Bullying

            A couple weeks back, one of the bloggers I follow wrote a post on bullying. As I sat down to write a quick comment I found myself writing and writing and writing. Turns out I had a lot to say about bullying. So I cut my comment short and got out my journal and started writing down my own thoughts on the subject. Then Thanksgiving came and I was distracted by apple pie and baked Brie. So now that the boys are back in school I can sit down and focus on more important (and less fattening) issues.
First of all, I want to differentiate between teasing and bullying. Just about everyone endures teasing at some point in his or her lives. It’s unpleasant but a relatively harmless part of growing up. My brothers used to tease me about a variety of things—from my name (do you have any idea how many words rhyme with Vic or Vickie?) to my vanity (little girls—especially little girls who grow up to be actors—love mirrors). But they never crossed the line where I felt threatened or like less of a person. I always knew they were my brothers and they had my back. Come to think of it, they still tease me. But then again, they still have my back. It’s a pretty good trade-off. Bullies, on the other hand tear people down in order to build themselves up. Being bullied can take away your sense of self worth.
From the time I was in kindergarten, I never really fit in at school. In third grade a handful of students were taken out of class and given IQ tests. Much to my teacher’s surprise, I wasn’t weird. I was “gifted” (or maybe I should say I wasn’t just weird). Twenty-two kids from different schools across the city were be bused to a centrally located school for the A2 Program (these days it would be a TAG or Talented and Gifted program). It had some flaws. Basic skills were often overlooked in favor of more creative projects (I’m still a little shaky on arithmetic, but I make one hell of a diorama) I didn’t consider that a flaw at the time and I fit in much better with the kids in the program than I did at my original school.
We were supposed to be together for three years in elementary school and two years in Junior High. That is, until the budget was cut. When we went to 7th grade we were integrated back into traditional classrooms. During the first few years of elementary school we were a little dorky among our peers, now having been separated from them for three years we were officially recognized dorks. We were “A2 Fags” to the other kids. For three years our teachers told us how smart we were, now we were “A2 Fags”.
            There was one girl who gave me a particularly hard time. As I said, I had been teased before, but this was different. There was menace implied in her ridicule. She scared me. I don’t remember her name. I remember her blond ponytail and her “posse” who always flanked her when she harassed me. She cornered me one day after school in the hallway. I don’t remember why I was still there when school was over. But I’ll never forget being in the second floor corridor near the service elevator that day. And I’ll certainly never forget what I was wearing. My mother had just made me a purple and white striped dress—sort of like an oversized sweatshirt (it was the 80’s). I loved it and I was so proud of the fact that she had made it for me. Blondie strutted up to me with her posse and said, “Nice dress.” He voice was sarcastic and threatening.
            I was terrified. There were no teachers around and I was little—I hadn’t quite reached my current towering height of 4’11 and couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds. She had given me grief a thousand times before and I just took it. But this time it really made me angry. I felt so good about that dress. My mother who worked full time and had three other kids had taken the time to make me a dress. And here was this girl with her blond hair and her Palmetto jeans making fun of it. So I forced a big shiny smile on my face and said, “Thanks! It is nice isn’t it?”
            There was this look of fury on her face followed by a look of panic. She was the big bad girl as long as I was the pushover. So she started laughing and literally dropped on the ground and rolled around as if what I had said was so funny she couldn’t contain herself. Her girls looked a little confused and started laughing too.
            It didn’t take someone as smart as an “A2 Fag” to figure out why she was laughing. She never had any intention of hitting me, but she also never figured I’d talk back. Did I think she was going to hit me at the time? Yup. Did I know what to do if that happened? Nope. But I was tired of someone making me feel badly about myself. I knew I deserved better so I finally spoke up. She only gave a hard time one or two more times and the same thing happened. I stood up for myself and she pretended it was funny.
            Now, I know I got lucky. There are plenty of bullies who are going to go ahead and throw the first punch. What then? You can teach your kids to defend yourself but most schools have such strict anti-fighting policies that it rarely matters. Unless you let the bully beat you to a pulp you’re going to get suspended (or worse) for fighting. So what do we do about it? How do we keep our kids from being bullied? And how to you stop it if it starts?
            Instill in your children a sense of self-respect—not self-esteem. What’s the difference? Read this blog post from a fantastic young writer who explains in beautifully. How do you do that? Love them, accept them for who they are, and let them do things for themselves. Nothing builds self-respect like accomplishment. Bullies look for kids who appear to be an easy mark. A kid who walks tall and appears confident is less likely to be a victim. If you can afford it and your kid is interested, maritial arts are great for building confidence (and for knowing what to do if you absolutely must defend yourself physically).
            Talk to them. It sounds obvious, but the big conversations don’t just come out of nowhere. As parents, we know when we ask, “How was your day?” , we never get an answer like, “Today we had fish sticks for lunch, I aced my math test, had art and Freddy said he’s going to stick my head in the toilet if I don’t stay out of his way.”  I usually get a sulky, “Good” from one child and an exuberant “Awesome!” from the other when I ask. But as they’re having their after school snack, doing homework, and while I’m making dinner I get a lot more information.
            Make sure the administration of the school knows who you are. Go to PTA or PTO meetings, volunteer at events, chaperone a field trip. Your concerns are more likely to be listened to if you are known as the involved parent, and not just the parent who calls when something is wrong. And be selective about calling. I know the experts would disagree with me on this one, but I think it’s important for two reasons. First of all, if you call about every little thing, you become the parent who thinks every little thing is an issue—like a well-intentioned boy who cried wolf. Also, I really feel like the age of the helicopter parenting needs to come to an end. Kids have to learn to handle situations themselves or they’ll never earn their own self-respect. When you’re talking to your kids try to find out if a situation is really bullying of if it is just kids “being kids”. If it’s happening repeatedly and your child doesn’t want to go to school it is time to make a call. If he comes home from school one day and has a few scrapes, but everything else seems okay, just keep an eye on him and your ears open.
            Have you noticed how many people you know have stories to tell about being bullied? I mentioned on my Facebook page that my son had been called a nerd on the bus one day. Dozens of my friends chimed in about how great “nerds” grow up to be and how they had similar experiences as kids. Maybe because pre-adolescence and adolescence is all about fitting in, but being a successful adult means standing out. Who came up with that rule? Probably some mean girl with fantastic hair.