because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Are You Proud of Your Sweet Little Bully?

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Recently I read one of the most amazing (and terrifying) blog entries called “Memories of a Bullied Kid,” on bullying from single dad laughing, a man who reflects back on a time in his life where he says he was systematically terrorized for years – but that he never said anything to anyone – except once. And he went further to report that when he reported the bullying, things got worse for him. Afterwards, he remained silent and endured the torture for over a decade. With so many students killing themselves these days, it amazes me that he is alive to tell the tale.

In the all the bullying literature that is out there, there is one piece of the puzzle that hasn’t been particularly well documented, and so I’m putting out there. Guess what? Sometimes parents of bullies are proud that their children are bullies. I have heard parents admit they would rather have their children be the ones “standing up for themselves” than the ones being bullied: that they have actually encouraged their children to get physical first, so that they are never made targets themselves. For me, this is the ugliest, darkest side to parenting.

Having been a teacher for 20 years now, and a parent for 11, I see that there is precious little time for elementary school to get to know each other at school. I know this because at the end of their 5th grade year, my son (and one friend) could not identify several of the children in their own class.

“I don’t know his name,” my son admitted.

His friend, who happened to be over that day shrugged: “Me either.”

It was unbelievable to me that my child and his friend could spend an entire year with the same people day in and day out and not know everyone’s first and last names, perhaps some tidbit of personal information.

I guess the sense of community has fallen out of the curriculum. Children are no longer taught to be good citizens, the ethics of being good people. The game is all about getting ahead, getting into the best schools — and kids learn early on that they may need to stomp on a few folks to get there. And I am sad to report that many parents encourage this type of aggressive, mean-spirited competition in athletics and academics. And meanwhile everyone is surprised that bullying in on this rise? Shocked when there is another incident reported, this time more gruesome than the last?

I never thought about college until 11th grade. Now, parents discuss college with their 1st graders. That’s a lot of pressure to put on children. When adults are stressed, they can go for a run, swim a few laps, take a yoga class. Well, kids get stressed out, too.  But sometimes their stress comes out less constructively. So if you don’t even know all the kids in your class . . . well, why not pick on her? She’s weird. Or him? He’s quiet. Or, if you are really sneaky, get someone else to do it for you?

Once learning their children have been acting as bullies, I’m always amazed at how unapologetic parents are. When I hear of kids who have been bullied and that some type of administrative action has taken place – even suspensions – where the school has agreed a particular child had overstepped too many times with too many kids – I am always shocked that part of the restitution never includes a written apology from the bully. No-one ever makes the offending kid write a note to the person he has been kicking around.

If my child intentionally (or unintentionally) hurt someone, he’d either be over at that kid’s house apologizing in person or he’d be writing letters: to the kid he hurt, to the principal (indicating that he understood the infraction), to the parents of the bullied child explicating in essay form precisely what type of punishment(s) he would be receiving at home that would befit his behavior at school.

Apparently, most parents spend more time worrying about their child getting bullied than about their child being a bully. As a result, when they find out their child is bullying others, it takes them by surprise and they don’t know how to handle it.

What would you do if you found out your child was a bully? How would that conversation go? Would you be proud or horrified?

Has "Stranger Danger" Gone Too Far?

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photo from Mr. T in DC @ flickr.com

I was in the epicenter of suburbia, standing in a Target store, holding up two bathing suits, and feeling a little indecisive. A little blond-haired girl who couldn’t have been more than 3-years old stood in her bright orange cart while her mother, standing one arm’s length away, sifted furiously through a rack of summer shorts.

“I like the pink one with the flowers,” the girl offered, unsolicited. “It’s pretty.”

“I like that one, too . . .” I said. “But I think I’m going to get the black one.”

Suddenly, the little girl’s mother swooped in, a deranged lioness.

"pink car" by hfb @flickr.com

“We don’t talk to strangers!” the little girl’s mother shouted loud enough for not only her daughter to hear but for everyone in the entire department to hear as well. Clearly, the message was more for me than for anyone else. But instead of smiling politely and wheeling her daughter away to speak with her privately, she made a big ole scene by shouting and pushing the cart (and her little girl) far, far away from (dangerous) me.

Heaven forbid, her daughter and I might have got to talking about shoes.

Okay, I get that there is this weird, American fear about strangers. I don’t seem to have that fear, but I know a lot of people do. That said, 99.99% of the world is composed of strangers, so I have always been of the mindset that one of my many jobs as a mother would include teaching my child about how to respond appropriately to strangers because – let’s face it – sometimes, a person needs to rely on other people. Sometimes even people we don’t know. In her book Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, author Lenore Skenazy points out that Americans watch a lot of  television, and the news is always going on about some child being raped, abducted, or snatched. We hear about how “…this kid went into the bathroom and some guy killed him, and [we] become very scared someone is on the prowl for [our] children” (87). This kind of thinking is crazy-making.

At age 10, my son doesn’t have a cell phone. He can’t call me or text me for immediate rescue. So if, for example, we happen to get separated at the grocery store and he really can’t find me after searching the aisles for a few minutes, he has learned to go to Customer Service – to calmly state that his mother has gotten lost (ha!) and ask for me to be paged. Or, if we are at an outdoor venue, I have taught him to find a mother with children and ask her – this stranger – if she might use her cell phone to call me because we have become separated. He knows not to get into a car with someone he doesn’t know. He knows not accept anything from anyone offering him candy or kittens or balloons or free iPods. He knows not to go anywhere with a stranger asking for help, but instead to reassure that person he is heading home and that he will send help back as soon as he can. He’s known these things since he was small, and he’s actually had to put some of these things into practice.

I guess I’d rather have my kid feel he can trust other human beings. After all, at some point, he will need to know how to interact with people he doesn’t know, why not start early? I also think I have enough faith in humanity to believe that most people are not out to abduct or molest or kill my child.

And really, what did the mother in Target succeed in teaching her daughter by sweeping her away from me so violently? That people are terrifying. That no one can be trusted. That the world is a scary place, and that her daughter is utterly ill-equipped to function in it. She taught her daughter not to speak. That even casual conversation is dangerous. That mother didn’t teach her daughter a thing about safety. She taught her daughter about fear. As far as I’m concerned, she also taught her daughter a big lesson in how to be downright rude to other people.

What could be right about that?