At the beginning of every school year, my boys and I have a discussion along the same lines: one can never have too many friends. One can never reach out too often. One can never know what good can come reaching out, from leaving the security and safety of the established circle of friends and reach out to a new person. Is this new person going to be kind in return? Is this person going to smile and reciprocate? Are they going to accept the gesture? You can’t know without trying, but that first step can take so much courage. We have this discussion repeatedly because A) it is important information to remember, and B) it’s a valid point that bears repeating (and yes, I know I just repeated myself).
I tell my boys that I want them to be the example kid in class. To be the one that classmates go home and tell their mom and dad about at the dinner table because they admire this boy so. To be the kid that other kids want to be. And to be that kid not because they are the smartest or the coolest, and not because they are the fastest or the funniest. I want them to be that kid because they are the kindest, and because they reach out and include.
My take-home message to my boys (and hopefully to you) is to make the effort to build a community because the root of so many issues – from bullying and gun violence to depressed and socially isolated kids – is lack of community and social belonging. Having true valued and dependable friendships during these school-age years is of utmost importance for our social development; this is the age where our kids’ peers (and the opinions of those peers, expressed or not) are more important in our kids’ eyes than our own. Why? Because they are old enough to be trying out their social skills on their own; they know Mama and Papa bear loves them, they are secure in that knowledge; do others value them, too?
School is the place of magic, a place for friendships and lessons and learning. School is a place of wonder, where many minds come together and create amazing things. School is also a place where kids go (reluctantly) and want to hide. School is a place where kids experience great angst, trepidation and fear. This is what happens when a child becomes the target of bullying. Bullying happens at every age, and between every combination of genders, ages, and personalities. Bullying happens in every school, around the globe and across mediums. Regardless, this does not excuse bullies, nor does it make its occurrence ignorable. Child bullies often grow up to be adult bullies, repeating the cycle. Bullied children often turn around and bully other children, exasperating and compounding the situation. When are we going to treat bullying like the disease it is and work together to get it out of our schools?
We parents, we absolutely mean no harm. We want only the best for our kids. We want them to grow and flourish and do well. Sometimes, though, in our blind love and support we do not have an honest view of our children; especially our children at school, because at school our kids often have a different persona than they might at home. Parents of bullies are often bullies themselves (apples don’t fall far from the proverbial tree) or they are oblivious. Perhaps they are busy working parents. Perhaps they are often absent from the scene, travelling for work or out of the house due to marital situation. Regardless, they don’t/can’t honestly see their child for the perpetrator that they are: a person wreaking havoc on another’s psyche and well-being. Perhaps they are aware their child is a bully and choose the easy route and not confront the hurdle – peace at home is better than no peace at all. Perhaps they are bullies themselves and inadvertently pass on the bullying behaviors through example and experience. It doesn’t matter how it happens; the important thing is to react.
Parents can help their kids by being present and being aware of what is going on in their kids’ lives: who do they hang out with, what do they like to do in school, what are their friends into, what is their favorite subject… These may not seem like bully-related topics but if you know what is going on with your kid – day-in-day-out – then you know when something is amiss. You know if they are off-track.
Schools are (should be?) safe place children go to learn, to develop socially, emotionally and mentally. Schools can be a hive of activity, bolstering young egos, building strong brains. Schools can also the hardest place to hide when one is a target of a mean kid. I am not going to use this as a platform to discuss what policies a school should or should not have in place. Suffice it to say, schools should be cognizant of how their students feel when they are at school: Is the environment conducive for learning? Is it a secure, positive and warm place to spend the majority of their waking hours? Are the adults at the school supportive and present? Are the children learning at the rate that they should, in the manner that works best for them, and do the kids feel as though they can rely on the adults to foster the most effective learning environment possible? Are our kids safe?
Schools have to walk a fine line between what they need to do for each child they are entrusted with, and all that they would like to do. They have to walk that fine line between what schools should be doing to help our kids grow and develop and what parents should be doing. It is an arduous task we present to them, and we don’t generally thank them for all they do; instead we nag about what they don’t do. Suffice it to say, we trust them with our kids, so they should do what they can to keep them safe and secure. Policies and anti-bully programs that are most effective include a systemic approach - every grade is included; positive language and community enhancing activities; the ability to get help anonymously if need be; no punitive measures taken against bullies; and care be taken with the victims. And, honestly, we really need to re-evaluate if an anti-bully policy is an invasion of privacy or of our First amendment rights. Either we want them to protect our kids, or we don’t; we can’t sue them for either of the aforementioned supposed crimes if they are doing their best to look out for our kids. It is up to each community to determine what they need; there is no need to reinvent the proverbial wheel, as one can find many examples of anti-bullying programs online. Piecing together an effective comprehensive program is a time-intensive task, but not an impossible one.
Friends, I have to say, though, even with all of those policies out there, each one claiming to be the silver bullet that will take down the beast that is bullying, I don’t think that can be the only solution. You want to know what I think? I think the magic bullet is building community. Humans instinctively don’t want to hurt other humans, not unless their hands are somehow forced. So instead of pushing them to seek attention any way they can (albeit negative), give each member of the community compassion and consideration. Close the screens, friends. Open the lines of human-to-human communication. The more we push technology at our kids, the less they are developing their socialization skills; they can faster reprogram your iPad than they can have a discussion with an adult about their exciting plans for the weekend. Talking to peers about feelings and hopes and dreams? What?! Remember when we were kids, and we used to have sleepovers where we talked with our BFF about everything under the sun? Now sleepovers are for all-night PlayStation tourneys and chatting online with the friends who aren’t currently in the room. Help your kids see how their actions and words affect others, help them look at the human they are impacting with their words or photos, and help them realize how powerful their kind words can be. Then the bullying will diminish. It’s not about punishing those who have been mean; it’s about building a sense of community that will inhibit any meanness from starting in the first place. I’m not placing the blame solely on screens; we do need to come to terms with the fact that our kids don’t connect with people in the same way that we did when we were their ages because they don’t have to. They can build a faceless community for themselves of disembodied online personalities. They can be (or pretend to be) whomever they choose online; it’s very different in person.
Close your screens, parents, and connect with your kids. They want so badly to connect with you. They want so badly to tell you about their day, and their plans. They want to tell you who they hung out with at lunch and how their science project is going. They want to tell you about what great new process they learned. They want to hear about your day, and to know about whom you met up with for lunch. They want to have that familial bond, and process their day with you.
Close your screens, kids. Hang out with your neighbor friends, get together and do homework. Go to the mall together (do kids even still do that?). Make a cake together. Go to the pool, or get a group together and have a pick-up soccer match. Talk to your parents about your favorite part of the day, and what was the best part. Tell them about the funny joke your friend told you.
Close your screens, teachers. Give your students the attention they are so craving from you. You are one of the most important influences on the kids’ minds; do your best with that. Look for the teachable moments and give them all you’ve got. Get the kids outside and explore how the lessons you teach relate to the great wide world. Close your screens and walk to the next classroom during your break. Connect with your buddy teacher. Tell them about the funny-but-insightful comment the student you have in common gave in class. Take a break outside yourself, and just enjoy the sunshine on your face.
Bullying is as old the human race: As long as there have been people aware of and care about the opinion of others, bullying has existed. And yet, just as there are those who are mean, there are even more who are kind and compassionate. This is not a skill, though, that one can learn while slumped over in front of a screen. Instead, we need to connect, come together and make a community. You may not know me, I may not know you, but if I see someone being deliberately cruel to you, you can bet on my stepping in and pointing out the unfairness of their actions. We need to care about our words and our actions and how they impact others. We need to take care with the feelings of others. We need to stand up to the bullies, even if we are not the intended target, to protect those not willing to do for themselves. When we do this, we are not alone, and we are hand-in-hand and that is the best weapon against bullies.