Thursday, April 24, 2014

What you should be teaching your kids about bullying

Let me start by saying that I'm not a parent. I can't speak from a parental perspective on the topic of bullying, and I know that. 

So why have I ventured into this no-mans-land of telling parents how to parent? 

I've been wrestling with the decision to post this blog for a few weeks now. I finally came to the conclusion that - while I'm not a parent - I do have a lot of valuable information to impart on the subject. I can see the bullying issue from a couple of different sides, having been both a bully and a victim in school. There's plenty of articles and blog posts about how the school needs to crack down on bullying, or the idea that there need to be federal laws against bullying. This is not one of those. 

I actually think bullying serves an important function in society. Would it be awesome if kids could just be nice to each other all the time? Absolutely! But since kids are just as human as the rest of us, minus the self control and tolerance that some of us have learned, I don't see it being very likely. In my opinion, that's okay. As my husband says, "How would I have known that white Velcro shoes didn't go with black sweatpants if the bullies didn't tease me for it?"

Bullying teaches us from an early age that sometimes people just won't like you. Not everyone thinks you hung the moon, and if you look weird there is always someone who will point it out. If responded to correctly, the verbal abuse we all sustain in school at one point or another can be used to shape us into well-adjusted adults. We can learn early on that what some people think doesn't matter, and that we need to decide for ourselves and just stick with it. 

We can also learn not to wear white Velcro shoes with black sweatpants.  

If we teach our children to respond correctly to the friction of bullying, it can help them go a really long way in life. So, point number one:

Teach your children to respond to bullying the right way. Not with stupid sayings that don't actually help, but with internal dialog. They need to know that with every comment they have the option to take it in, consider whether it's valid, and either toss it away and move on unaffected, or apply certain changes to adjust whatever issue is being criticized. 

I think it's too easy to just hand out disconnected points and expect the kids to come to the right conclusion for themselves. Parents hear about a bullying situation and either they completely flip their lid and start bullying school administration to make something happen (sending the message that bullying is OK as long as it's aimed at anyone other than the perfect, precious child); or they cite the platitudes of the ages.

"Sticks and stones can break my bones..." teaches children to lie to themselves and others about how something has impacted them, and that you can resolve any situation by being really annoying.

"Just be nice to the other kids" teaches children that they are doormats and probably deserved whatever happened anyway.

"Tell a teacher" sends the message that they have no power of their own and will never be right or even able to defend themselves.

"Just don't let it bother you" teaches them that everything should be bottled up inside - because they don't know how to just not be bothered, so they have to pretend.

I could go on forever. Without the connecting points that we as adults have mentally, these statements are utterly useless and even harmful. It does the child no good to hear that their bully is just as insecure as they are, because they don't know what in the world they're supposed to do with that information. We have to teach them to connect the right dots, in the right order, for themselves.

That alone would significantly reduce the number of bullying-related fatalities.

But teaching children how to have good mental dialog isn't enough. Sometimes bullying crosses the line into physical abuse, and at those times a good mental dialog just won't cut it. Which brings me to my second point:

Teach your children that it's okay to defend themselves. 

It's treated as a crazy idea anymore that you would teach your kids to hit back. After all, didn't you just finish their toddler years by teaching them that hitting back is just as wrong as hitting first? Won't they get in trouble at school for hitting back?

Let me ask you this: Would you prefer for your child to be suspended, or permanently handicapped? Would you prefer for your child to be expelled, or dead?

I saw a video recently, in an anti-bullying article, that I found incredibly disturbing. It was supposedly shot by a student, and featured two teenage girls: One screaming and throwing punches, the other cowering in a corner and begging to just be allowed to go home.

The video seemed to go on forever as the victim sustained blow after blow, never defending herself. I watched the video, waiting for the moment when the victim would finally have had enough and would fight back to save herself. It didn't happen. Despite plenty of openings, plenty of chances to hit back and knock the wind out of her opponent so she could escape, the girl did nothing.

She was hospitalized, in a relatively short coma, and on the verge of death. She did come out of it all okay...provided you consider being permanently blinded and having unknown amounts of brain damage to be "okay."

Being a minor, there was no word on what the consequences to the aggressor were.

Let me ask you again, and I want you to really think about this. Put yourself in that hospital room, your daughter hooked up to those life supporting machines and tell me: Would you rather your child defend themselves and probably get in trouble for it, or would you prefer that your baby girl suffer a brutal beating that blinds her and causes untold brain damage that will affect her life in unknown ways forever?

I shouldn't have to say any more on the subject. The very thought that someone could be allowed to damage your child in such a way should have you signing them up for every martial arts class in the city.

As kids, we go through all of our schooling being taught that fighting back really is just as bad as starting the fight. The kid who defends himself gets suspended for longer than the kid who attacked him, the girl who fights back gets expelled and sent to "Juvie" because she broke her attacker's arm. It's drilled into us, repeatedly and forcefully, that we are not to fight back. That we ought not defend ourselves.

It's up to you, as parents, to override that.

I currently suffer from a back injury that I sustained in the 7th grade. I sometimes can't sleep because I'm in so much pain that all I can do is cry. It's been like this since the day a boy in gym class decided - just for funsies - to drive all of his weight into a kick aimed at my lower back.

It wasn't the first time I'd been attacked at school. Since 4th grade I'd been dealing with physical violence of increasing intensity, and an administrative staff that didn't really care enough to do anything about it. No, it really wasn't the first time I'd been hurt because my classmates thought it would be funny.

But it was the last.

Why? Because after years of listening to my mom tell me to just be nice and just tell a teacher and just don't let them bother me...I finally took my dad's advice, and hit the kid back.

More accurately, I tackled him, shoved his face into the gym floor, and told him to apologize.

Did my mom do something wrong in teaching me to be nice, to tell a teacher? No. She did the best she knew how. And in many situations, being nice or telling the teacher could have made all the difference. But if I had retaliated sooner, the issue would likely have never even reached the point that I would have sustained an injury that affected me into my adult life.

Why didn't I listen to my dad sooner? Simple, I didn't want to get in trouble.

The fact of the matter is that there comes a time to draw the line and refuse to allow anyone to cross it. Our kids need to know that. They need to know that whatever the consequences for their actions, there comes a time to defend yourself...and that's really okay.

So there it is, my two cents on bullying. My non-parental advice to all the parents out there. Teach your kids to have correct internal responses, and teach them that sometimes it really is okay to hit back.

Just how many lives could we save?