A few years ago, on the way home one evening, a car pulled out in front of me and — being the eloquent former Texan that I am — I let a few well-chosen words fly.
And then Tootie piped up:
“Mama, was that a bad car?”
“Yes, sweetie. That person didn’t wait for her turn. We have to take turns when we’re driving or else we might hit each other.”
“Hitting’s bad,” Tootie replied.
And then she added: “Except when a boy pushes you down. Then it’s OK.”
Oh, hell, what’s the appropriate response here?
We don’t hit in our house. I know many parents spank, and I’m not casting judgment. I think one parents by instinct and lingers in a chosen comfort zone. For me, spanking — or any type of hitting — just doesn’t feel right. And so we don’t.
But if someone pushes her down … ? Hmmm. Does she just sit there meekly, waiting to be rescued? What kind of message does that send? Or does she put a stop to things then and there by pushing back, by standing her ground?
People tell their children to “ignore” the bullies. Yeah, right. It doesn’t work. It never worked for me, and it hasn’t worked for countless other children either. “Telling” is acceptable only during the very early grade-school years. After that, it only adds to the helpless-victim image. And plus you’re a snitch.
Imagine being the kid who’s subjected to such misery from kindergarten on? Imagine the kid who doesn’t see an improvement in high school?
I’ve often wondered/worried about whether one — or both — of my children could ever be that kid. How would I handle it?
Since I’m a neurotic freak who often imagines dire scenarios just so I can carry on entire conversations in my head with the imaginary people who have wronged me or my offspring, I mull the what-ifs, over and over.
Because quite frankly, if Tootie or the E-man came home, day after day, year after year, bullied and beaten down, the Mama Mean-Ass Shrew in me would want to huff over to the high school cafeteria and — abandoning my no-hitting beliefs — smack the holy crap out of the offenders.
A few years ago, I wrote an in-depth story on a family who was grappling with this issue. Their teenage son was developmentally delayed, and, sadly, an easy target. They already had switched schools once in an effort to stop the abuse. It didn’t work.
He was punched. The kids broke his glasses. Twice. Called him a faggot and made fun of his mannerisms. They followed him through the halls, making threats and laughing when he cowered.
His teachers said he should ignore the kids. Didn’t work. The principal, whom I interviewed, was openly frustrated. “We don’t know what to do,” he told me. “We’re at a loss.”
I went to the boy’s house one morning, before school, and I remember the cajoling required to get him into the car so that his dad could drive him to the campus. I rode with them, and it was awful. This boy’s misery radiated from every pore. He was nearly in tears by the time we arrived. I watched him pull on his backpack, square his thin shoulders and trudge to the front doors.
I wasn’t a mother then. But it hurt, physically, watching that boy, and feeling his dread.
Awhile back, I read Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, a novel that dissects a school shooting — and bullying — from all perspectives. It was a tough read. Because even as I was appalled by the shooter’s coldness, I read his mother’s thoughts and the descriptions of her anguish, and I wondered, yet again, what do we as parents do?
Two years ago, Tootie’s best friend was a bully. She came over to our house twice. Both times she stalked the E-man and tormented him for no apparent reason. When I found out that this little girl also was bullying other kids who tried to play with Tootie at recess, I put the brakes on that friendship, explaining to Tootie that we don’t hang out with people who treat others that way. The bully transferred to another school around that time, so that was that.
We live in an Alpha Society. Always have, really, but now, new precedents have been set. We see more, hear more, want more, have more.
We strive to be Alpha Moms, Alpha Career Women, Alpha SAHMs. Our partners do the same. Because, really, who wants to remain at the bottom of the heap, especially as “more” and “better” become increasingly available?
But we are adults with maturity (allegedly) and experience to draw from.
Our children, while they see and feel the pull of Alpha, don’t have the capacity to manage it.
And so they bully. Or they cower.
And I wonder, as a parent, which is worse for my child? Life as one of those snotty girls I hated in junior high? Or life as the kid who agonizes each day over where to sit in the cafeteria?
How do I help them find the happy medium in the social shark pool that is school?
We tell them, “Use your words.”
Yes. Well. The only words that work with bullies are strong ones, delivered with a certain attitude. Must I chip away at the sensitivity I love in both my kids, harden them up and teach them my arsenal of cuss words?
What troubles me is that children who are chronic victims in school often remain victims even after they enter the adult world. I’ve seen what’s out there. I write about it, on a regular basis. I don’t want them to be quite as cynical as I am, but I hope they will develop a don’t-eff-with-me sort of armor.
But how to balance this? How to develop it, without cultivating a bully in the process?
I treasure my children’s innate empathy and kindness. I also worry these traits will make them vulnerable.
Kids need to learn how to deal with bullies when they’re young. Because even as adults, they will still encounter them — at work, within the social scene, at PTA meetings, everywhere.
Right now my instructions to the kids are these: Try to ignore a bully at first. If that doesn’t work, use your words. Strong and powerful words, forceful even. Make sure the bully knows you mean business. And if a kid attacks, hit, kick, do whatever’s necessary to defend yourself until a teacher arrives.
When she was 5, Tootie came home one day and told me a boy had sat on her and tried to make her eat a crayon.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she replied. “I just kept my mouth closed.”
I told her the next time a boy pulled that kind of stunt, she had my permission to do whatever was necessary to get the kid off of her.
I refrained from explaining exactly where to hit or kick.