Does a little bullying do our kids good?
I ask this because it seems like the anti-bullying initiatives I see plastered all over the walls whenever I walk into a school building anymore have the potential to swing back too far. You know, like how the anti-violence movement has us bouncing young boys out of school for pointing fake finger pistols at each other.
Sure, something had to be done. Anything that drives vibrant people to suicide needs to be ground to a screeching halt.
I wonder, though, if we need to stop the pendulum before it swings the way of participation trophies and other measures that make children feel good about themselves to the point of too much insulation from reality. I think medals and certificates for everyone who makes an effort in an activity or event are fine, but if it’s something in which there is a clear winner, then let’s have something for those kids, too. And let’s not kid ourselves, they know when something is a competition.
Like it or not, life is a competition, too. Even the grown-up world has mean people in it. Are we serving our kids by insulating them from insults and barbs, calculated campaigns and just plain malicious behavior, all the way until graduation?
I know there are tangents here. Big first one: Siblings! An insidious one that didn’t exist when I was growing up, cyberbullying. And heaven forbid that a college student’s first encounter with devious people be at the hands of a sorority or fraternity initiation.
My son had a miserable sixth-grade year, his first of middle school. He had gone to grade school two blocks from my office in another town, but my husband and I knew that middle and high school brought more afternoon and evening activities, and agreed to move our kids to school in the city where we lived when they hit that mark.
It was awful. All of the other kids came from four city schools. There was one student he had met through hockey but didn’t like, and one he knew a little from the church. That was it, and he was the shortest to boot. Asked his favorite color and animal, he didn’t say blue or dog, but answered honestly, orange and raccoon. He had different tastes even then, and always stuck to them, wearing skinny jeans throughout high school despite being called gay, dismissing people who hated his favorite bands without hearing them, as small-minded.
Only twice did the bullying become physical. Once it was on school grounds and dealt with quickly. Another time it happened out of our sight at a football game, and when another mom called me during the school day, I was on the phone with the principal in minutes to put her on watch.
Being an outsider in sixth grade was too much to bear. My heart broke for my son, whose only solace was on the ice in hockey, and whose school days were endless.
I did the only thing that I, something of an outsider myself, knew to do: I taught him not to care.
Maybe it wasn’t the best tactic, but it got him through the rest of that year and the ones that followed. Everyone is not going to be your friend, I said. Look around; no one is everyone’s friend, not even the popular kids. Everyone has someone who doesn’t like them, and you don’t need to waste energy on them. Pick one or two people you really like, and the rest of them can fall off a cliff for all you care.
Too far? Probably, but this kid was tired, and wasn’t going to listen to anything about being nice to people who were brutal to him. He picked one friend, the boy who went to our church, and over time they became so tight that my son even visited him in another state when, wrenchingly, his family moved away.
To this day, my child holds this philosophy. He cares deeply about a few close friends. The rest of the world, if they’re nice he’s nice back, if they’re not he shrugs his shoulders and moves on.
He needs this. He has his heart set on medical school or graduate research, and either way, the world’s not going to get any warmer.
If he had been protected from verbal abuse at school, I don’t know that he’d be quite so tough. I gave him the tools I could, but school is the proving ground. If some adult had stepped in to swoop away the offender every time he was called short, weird, nerd, gay, mocked for his long hair and vocabulary, who would he be now?
Who will our current young students become? Yes, have the suicide prevention groups and watch out for the worst of things, in the hallways and bathrooms and online.
But then, let’s get out of the way. I believe we owe our children that.
Have your children experienced bullying? What did you do to help them deal with the problem?
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Beth Bellor is a journalist living in Michigan. She grew up in Kentucky (go Cats!), has been married 23 years and has a 19-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter. You also can find her on Twitter @bethbellor and at bethbellor.wordpress.com.