The other day Adam & I found ourselves in a discussion of school and bullying. By the end of the conversation, I found myself choked up over flashbacks from my middle school experience (yes…things that happened 25 years ago). I do consider myself a balanced person, yet, the intense discussions brought back memories, which, when placed in the context of my own children – the eldest of whom has entered “elementary/1st grade” now – are even more important and poignant now. And then, today, I read this post on Amber Strocel’s blog about her experience at her daughter’s school – seeing a young child only 9 or 10 – already being ostracized by her peers. It broke my heart, and made me realize I needed to write this post.
I don’t want my children to experience anything like I experienced (and I know some children experience far worse than I did) in school. No child should have to be terrified of going to school because of continual ridiculing, shaming, teasing, threats, shunning, or physical abuse by other students. Being the victim of bullying is NOT – as some may say – an experience everyone “has to” go through; it is NOT required to build character. It does nothing but interfere with the main reason children are in school – to develop a love of learning. If a child can’t get through the day without fear, without trying desperately to fit in, or stay out of harms way, she can’t possibly learn. There’s no character building happening there. There’s only survival. And why should young children have to just survive, when they should be able to thrive? School should be a wonderful, safe, exciting, and happy place not a frightening or dangerous one.
So what can a parent do? Certainly good, open, frequent communication with your children’s teachers is integral. But teachers can’t be expected to intimately know each child and their place on the “social ladder”; nor can they be everywhere at once. I believe that avoiding being bullied – and being the bully – starts at home, with peaceful, connected parenting.
As parents, we have to be aware of the messages (hidden or overt) we are sending our children, every day. Do we use gentle words to guide our children, or harsh words to control our children? Are we negative in our observations of ourselves and the people around us? Or are we positive & uplifting? Do we talk about other people behind their back? Or do we keep unkind words to ourselves? Do we make comments under our breath when we step on the scale or look in the mirror? Or do we celebrate our bodies and the good health with which we are blessed? Do we point out differences between people in a judgmental way? Or are we inclusive and celebratory of differences? Do we have friends of different colors, life experiences, abilities? Or do all of our friends look, act, and sound the same? When we meet people do we immediately focus on what they are wearing or how they look? Or do we ask instead how they are doing and what they’ve been up to? Do we praise and encourage our children for expressing themselves and making their own choices – even if those choices go against the grain? Or do we say things like, “You shouldn’t wear/do/say that because people might look at you”? Do we embrace our children with love and understanding, even when they’ve been misbehaving? Do we do the same for ourselves and our partners?
The way we speak, the way we interact, the way we live our lives has more effect on our children than any external experiences**. The self esteem we instill in our children by loving them unconditionally, by showing empathy and compassion and understanding of those with differences, gives them a base of righteousness, from which to can pull from, even in the face of great adversity.
I believe that if all parents would treat their children with respect, understanding, empathy, and love that they – and all people – deserve, this darkness of childhood and humanity – bullying – would go away. Children who aren’t bullied by their parents, aren’t going to bully others, nor are they going to become the victims of bullying. Children who have only experienced peace will teach peace - it's in their nature.
I may not be able to keep my children away from all forms of negativity or disappointment in their lives. Nor should I. But I do know the way I interact with them will affect the way they can deal with these things in the future. I hope you’ll join me in a commitment to teaching our children messages of love and inclusion, in the continued hope that some time in the future, no child should have to encounter isolation and bullying at school. And school can go back to being a place about love of learning and peer community, as it should be.
**A while back, I read a great book that really speaks to this - the messages we send our children every day - without even meaning to, called Hidden Messages: What Our Words and Actions Are Really Telling Our Children by Elizabeth Pantley. I highly recommend it!