The topic of bullying seems to be front and center in South Pasadena – a renewed focus on an age-old issue.
I remember in seventh grade, I got into a fist fight with Cheryl Gibson. I had told her to stop pushing people who were waiting in line to get on the bus, and she told me I was going to “get it.” On the ride home, all the kids were egging us on, hoping for a show at our stop. Cheryl and her cronies got off first and waited for me. When I got off, I was faced with endless demeaning taunts, a specialty of middle school kids.
Not taking to being called a chicken too well, I cast my books on the ground and threw my first punch. We got into full-on, physical thrashing. I think my nail tore her lip, and she started bleeding. She began to cry and, accompanied by her cronies, went home. I held back my tears until I was alone in my room at home. Prior to the incident, Cheryl and her friends had regularly bullied me (the psychological sort). At a large school such as the one I attended, I didn’t think reporting would make a difference. In fact, I think it might have intensified the bullying had I reported it to the school authorities, since it would have shown that I couldn’t deal with the situation on my own.
Recently, there have been a number of seminars held at our schools for the benefit of both students and parents. I attended the Bully Prevention Parenting Seminar held at Marengo Elementary just last week. The speaker of the seminar, John Abrams, publicized himself as the “busiest assembly entertainer in all of Southern California, doing over 400 shows a year.” He was also a magician. Abrams went through the three markers of bullying (imbalance of power, intent to harm, and threat of further aggression) and the three types of bullying (verbal, physical, and relational) and the tell-tale signs of a child who is either “The Bully” or “Being Bullied.” He also outlined the bullying cycle and how we, as parents, can provide support with our unconditional love to our children in these situations.
In terms of directly dealing with bullies, he suggested reporting the bullying to the school in writing and going up the chain of school district command if not resolved. He also provided a couple of sample responses to the bullies that don’t escalate the incident – i.e. saying “I’m out of here” and “I know.”
I came away dissatisfied. The battle I had with Cheryl as recounted above was clearly an example of physical bullying, and, when faced with physical threats, self defense is sometimes necessary, with reporting to school authorities afterwards.
The seminar speaker, however, extended the definition of bullying to include a wide range of mistreatment, including the kind of “bullying” depicted in the movie Mean Girls that came out a few years ago. If “not being treated the way one wants to be treated” constitutes bullying and requires intercession by parents or school authorities, then aren’t we starting to undermine our kids’ ability to deal with unpleasant people on their own without adult intervention?
Bullying takes all forms and can happen anywhere -- in the home, at work, and in social situations. Most of us have been bullied at one time or another, and we need to arm our children with concrete tools to deal directly with bullies – feel-good admonitions to “love unconditionally” and “promote self-esteem” do little but make adults feel warm and fuzzy. Although it’s nice to provide a loving home and “give” our children a strong sense of self, parents can’t ultimately follow their kids through life and deal with bullies on their behalf. How do we help our kids remove the threat of bullying from their lives?
The issue here is that we, as parents, are often conflicted about the “right way” to raise our children. We were advised by Abrams to come up our own responses to bullies and role play at night. But the devil is in the details. How should we counsel our kids to respond to the bully face-to-face? When should they adopt harder tactics and end the bullying once and for all, by, for example, fighting back with either words or fists? When is walking away more appropriate? The ultimate goal here, I think, is to raise a child who is able to deal with these kinds of situations on his or her own and make the right decisions under the pressure of the moment. If we can arm them with tools to use now, then they can start learning how to deal with the bullies they will confront as adults, personally and professionally. I don’t have the answers to what these tools should be, but this is the kind of discourse we should start now.
By the way, after the hand-to-hand combat with Cheryl, she stayed away from me. I am not suggesting violence is the right response, but the goal is to stop the bully from bullying. The challenge is to figure out the most effective way to accomplish that goal. The best is if we can help our kids reach the goal on their own.