Moms Talk: Are We Really Preparing Our Kids to Handle Bullies?
Students need to develop lifelong strategies for handling bullies. Is just stopping harassment in schools enough?
There have been some frightening examples of bullying noted in the media lately, and in the not too distant past.
Just this week, a 12-year-old Pennsylvania boy died of injuries he received in a schoolyard attack, during an alleged bullying incident by a bigger boy who reportedly insisted on fighting him.
And of course, our own Rutgers University still is dealing with the aftermath and implications of the cruel ridicule of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman student who committed suicide in 2010 after another student posted Clementi's private gay encounter online.
That type of criminal behavior requires immediate and swift reaction from schools and (I think) law enforcement officials to protect the victim from what essentially is assault.
But many types of bullying are far more subtle, or difficult to detect.
Unfortunately, even if we somehow managed to rid our schools of bullies and bullying behavior, that still would leave students facing the rest of their lives with the need to handle bullying throughout.
Bullies are everywhere. They can be on the job, in public spaces, and sometimes in our families or even among our childrens' friends. (How many times do those who make nasty comments then insisted they were "Just kidding"?)
Bullies even can be in positions of sanctioned authority, using that authority for personal or professional gain. Somehow, even if we are scared, we must learn to stand up to such bullies, no matter how old or young.
Constantly criticizing someone's appearance and personality, or accusing someone unfairly, might conceivably be considered forms of bullying — but the type of behavior we'll never be able to avoid in life. So how should we teach our children to respond?
School bullying programs are designed to include ways that children can handle bullies. But I sometimes wonder if a limited amount of on-the-job training isn't necessary.
My older son spent his early years on Long Island, where he sometimes had to face down the (elementary school age and relatively pint-sized) neighborhood thugs. He learned some real-life strategies. Years later, he happened to mention that he had been surrounded by a group of kids who were making fun of him as the new kid in Basking Ridge schools. He mentioned as much casually, and with little apparent concern.
"Why didn't you tell me?" I asked.
He shrugged. "They were wimps who weren't going to do anything." Apparently, sizing up a bully's intentions is one learned skill.
My younger son, by contrast, is a product of the Somerset Hills. A few years ago, he decided to walk away from a playground argument, and turned his back. (Good on avoiding the fight, but a big "no" on turning one's back at that point!) He ended up getting hit on the eye with a rock. I can't believe but the older one would have at least backed away with a little more awareness.
Fortunately, the other mom and I worked out the argument. (How Basking Ridge is that?) But sometimes I wish the younger one were a little tougher and more savvy about how to avoid certain situations.
Although I never have come to blows, I remember being backed to the wall in high school by a much bigger girl. (Who knows why?) Not knowing what to do, and quite aware that I was totally outclassed physically, I responded by blatantly flattering her appearance.
Decades later, I'm still shocked that she smiled, walked away, and even gave me a wave in the school hallways after that. Hey, a little white lie is permissible sometimes!
It can require being tough, or just knowing what to say, to sidestep bullying.
This week, we have a blog on the Basking Ridge Patch in which a licensed social worker addresses bullying as a complex problem with no easy solution.
Joann Jarolmen writes that bullying is a growing problem, with new ways of social bullying opened up by social media, but that sometimes the label of bullying is being put on behaviors that might in the past have been labeled as mean-spirited and unfriendly. She noted that it sometimes can be difficult for children to discern when, where and how certain behaviors are or aren’t malevolent.
"My hope is that we mental health professionals, parents and teachers can facilitate growth and help children to develop more appropriate ways of interacting with one another, rather than simply using the label 'bully' without further explanation," Jarolmen wrote. "This label is hard to overcome and thus many with this label assume the characteristics and continue to engage in these negative behaviors to their and their victims’ detriment. Children should be allowed to make mistakes and learn and grow from them. That is the purpose of education."
Jarolmen adds that the label of “victim” also may not be helpful. "Those who are mistreated should also be seen as having the ability to grow and learn how not to be a victim. Children are permitted to make mistakes in math and history — why not in interpersonal relationships? A growth concept should exist rather than a punitive, zero tolerance mindset."
What do you think? How do you teach your children to avoid bullies, or to curb bullying behavior?
Do you think the the definition of bullying is becoming somewhat too blurred?
How have you learned to handle bullies? Did you have any important life lessons?
Let us know in the comments section below! Thanks for any input.