‘Bullying’ isn’t just a 21st century buzzword that is strewn about like bunting at a state fair – it’s a real social scourge that affects millions of children worldwide, every day. Bullying has measurable and serious consequences, including diminished self-esteem, depression and suicide. It’s not something any one of us should take lightly, either as the parents of the perpetrators, or the victims. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what many stakeholders in various segments of our society do: make light of the complications that come as accessories with bullying.
Children are routinely given mixed messages about bullying. On the one hand, schools fling open their doors for anti-bullying campaigners, equipped with colorful stickers and slogans to aid with imprinting their message in the minds of young learners. On the other, children who find themselves victimized are told to “get over it”, with some adults going as far as to suggest that bullying may in fact be beneficial to victims.
“I was ‘bullied’ when I was a kid, and it made me tougher.”
“The real world is hard, and the earlier kids learn how to deal with it, the better it will be for them!”
One has only to take a quick glance at the world around us to know that the status quo and the old way of doing this have not been a big help to us. The crises in Libya, Syria and in pockets of the United States are all a result of people investing more time in denigrating one another, talking at each other instead of to each other. If we called bullying what it really is – verbal abuse and physical assault – we might take it more seriously. That this behavior is exhibited by children as young as 7 or 8 ought to alarm us further.
When we moved to South Africa, I was comforted by the knowledge that some of the staff at our new primary school do recognize that there is a culture of bullying in portions of the student ranks and committed to me to watch out for my kids. It was one of the first conversations I had with a member of the administration, and on the very first day of school.
“Some of our kids can be vicious bullies,” she said. “I will look out for your kids. They must come to my office if they are made to feel uncomfortable.”
As a family, we were not unfamiliar with the theme of bullying. It’s something that was regularly tackled (almost worn out) in our Girl Scout meetings, during school assemblies and on television. I feel lucky that our children were able begin their formative years in environments that fostered respect for one’s self and others. At the same time, it may have also served as a disadvantage. Such a “soft” environment did not prepare them for what the Auntie at the school tried to warn me about.
Over all, the kids have been lucky not to have been picked on at school. Early Aya was picked on for not having “proper” school shoes by some 4th grader. She was wearing black Calvin Klein ballet flats instead of those gawdawful inky, clunky clogs the kids are made to wear. That a boy would take such interest in her shoes was…odd…it said much about his upbringing, but we bought the ugly clogs to keep his unwanted attentions at bay. (There’s a sad lesson in that.) The other girls have had no incidents at school because of the swiftness of their clap back game. Stone, has not been so lucky. He has been the subject of repeated bullying. The cause? His weight.
My son outweighs every kid in his age group. As a 2nd grader, he is just as big as some 5th graders. Despite his size, he is a gentle giant. He helps kids carry their belongings to class. He was constantly taking gifts to his teacher. When he feels courageous enough, he appeals for calm on the playground. He’s not a perfect kid, but he’s a good kid with a soft heart. This also makes him a target. There have been a number of afternoons where I’ve picked him up from carpool when he’s narrated stories of another kid calling him “fat boy” or telling him that he’s “so big that he can’t even fit in a garage”. A first grader pushed him down the hill and yelled, “Get up, fat boy!” as Stone lay stunned on the ground. We’ve always taught the kids not to respond violently to a provocation, but Liya is not a good student. The pushed the kid back and screamed at him for touching her brother. I have never been so happy as to have raised such a poor student.
One afternoon, I had to take the kids on a drive and level with them. The truth is, I said, there are always going to be people who say cruel things about you, who try to take advantage of you, who will try to use you. That’s not just something that happens now. It’s going to happen when you get to high school. It will happen when you go to college. It will definitely happen when you become an adult and enter the workplace. People are going to try to make you feel like you don’t have good ideas, that your clothes aren’t as nice as theirs or make you feel bad for the things you don’t have or the way you look. They’re gonna say things like “You’re so fat you can’t fit in a garage.” What YOU have to do is ask yourself if any of that is true. If it is true, then you have the power to fix it. If it’s not, then you’re dealing with an idiot. Most times, you will be dealing with idiots.
They nodded when I asked them if they understood. I know this is a lesson we will have to repeat again, because even as adults get trapped by this snare. Failing to interrogate the truth of a matter, particularly about ourselves, is a common let down. We can all do better.
There’s a quote that my friend Nanny McPhee used to have on her email signature:
“Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates:
At the first gate, ask yourself “Is it true?”
At the second gate ask, “Is it necessary?”
At the third gate ask, “Is it kind?”
For my children: If you ever have the opportunity to read this one day, remember – Let our ears also serve as gates to interrogate words before we allow them into our soul. Ask yourself if what is being spoken about you is true; and if not, discard it. For in truth, there is freedom… and that is is safest space of all.