My lack of understanding about how to deal with bullying is one of the greatest regrets I have about how I parented my children. So as we enter Bullying Prevention Month, here are seven things I wish I knew back then that I finally understand now that I have the wisdom and hindsight of a grandparent.
When your kids are the targets of bullying, don't encourage them to change their behavior to be accepted.
As the parent of two daughters, I lived through a lot of relational aggression. When other girls excluded them, my advice was often to behave differently to gain acceptance. If they don't call you, call them to make plans. If they are mean, try to find out what you could change about yourself to gain their favor. So wrong.
I now know that targets of bullying are often arbitrary. The object of the game is to exclude someone so you will not become a victim. It often has little to do with how the target behaves or looks or acts. The bullies crave a reaction from their victims, but more importantly, they boost their own status by putting someone else down. Better advice would have been to seek different friends rather than trying to curry favor with the Queen Bees and their courts.
Empower the bystanders.
The key to stopping bullying is the bystander. That category describes most kids, including mine. When they were not the targets, they felt relieved and were likely to passively follow the bullies. My advice when my children reported another child was being bullied was to mind their own business. Wrong again.
The bystanders are the silent majority of kids, and they have plenty of power to help by simply not following the lead of the bully. If bystanders are afraid to confront the bully, all they have to do is refuse to participate. Find something else to do. A bully without followers is not very powerful.
You can and should expect schools to intervene.
When my son was in sixth grade, some older bullies at the middle school he attended threw matches at his backpack. Needless to say, he was terrified and I was furious. I called the school, naively thinking someone would try to catch the perpetrators. Not our problem was the response. The sidewalk near the school was not the school's responsibility. I stupidly accepted this and picked him up from school rather than having him walk home.
Wow, would I have handled things differently if I knew then what I know now. He was my first child and I had far too much respect for authority. Perhaps I should have called the police. At the very least, I should have pushed the school to address the issue. But in those days, schools made parents feel like it was their children's fault if they were bullied.
If you see something, say something ... and say it again.
When one of my daughters was in middle school, she reported another girl was being bullied to the point where she had stopped coming to school. The Queen Bee told her if she came to school on her birthday, she would regret it so much she would want to kill herself. My daughter was mystified about why this girl had been singled out and was uncomfortable enough about the threat to share it with me.
I did try to help by going to my daughter's Language Arts teacher, who seemed sympathetic and empathic. Basically, I was told that there was nothing that could be done, as the teacher had not witnessed the problem in her classroom. So I let it drop. Eventually, the girl changed schools and I still feel guilty about that one. If I had a do over, I would have pursued it with the administration and reached out to the girl's mother (I didn't know her, but still...).
When your friend's kids are the bullies, have an honest talk. If that fails, end the friendship.
I will always regret maintaining friendships with people whose children excluded mine. It's an extremely awkward situation to handle, but remaining silent while one of my kids was suffering was giving my children the wrong message. If I was not willing to go to bat for them, then who would?
Of course, there is a risk in having this type of talk with a friend. You can't expect their child to befriend yours on the basis of the parents' friendship. But you can expect your child to be treated with kindness and respect. Looking back, these friendships were not worth worrying about and did not stand the test of time. I should have recognized if we couldn't talk about the issues between our kids, we did not share the same values.
Don't let adults bully your kids.
I was raised to automatically respect any adult. Even my parents' friends were addressed formally as Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So. I wanted my kids to feel that adults were more approachable and to politely question authority figures. But there were times when I gave adults in charge of my kids a pass on bullying behavior because they were teachers or coaches and I feared blow back on my children.
If I could have a do over for these incidents, I would have intervened more quickly and advocated more strongly for my kids. Often, I didn't listen to what I knew in my heart was right. I hesitated too long before talking to the adult who was bullying my child.
When they go low, you go high.
I wish I had these words from Michelle Obama to pass along to my children. Instead, I probably encouraged them to go low, or at least to appease the bullies the best they could. How much better it would have been to counsel them to walk away and maintain their dignity.
It is only looking back that I see the errors I made. I gave my children the moral values that encouraged them to be kind to and accepting of others. But I neglected to give them the tools to protect themselves from being bullied. Hopefully, my grandchildren will learn that important lesson from their parents.