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Bullies…and "Sissies"

Over the past few years, bullying has become sadly common. Tragic incidents of children committing suicide after having been bullied, and the possibility of alienation brought on in part by bullying leading to school shootings, have highlighted what is a tragic reality for too many. Parents are rightly concerned about the potential of this happening to their child or someone they know, and many are insisting that schools address the problem in an official way. There is a cottage industry of sorts created to train students, teachers and school administrators in effective ways to deal with bullying and many schools now have codified policies addressing the issue. These efforts are commendable.

Unfortunately, as with so many things, creating more policies often causes more problems than it solves. If we aren’t careful, the cry of “bully” can quickly sound very much like “wolf.” As much as we hate to admit it, most children are capable of incredible selfishness, and even cruelty. But not every act of teasing, name-calling, or even taunting sinks to the level of actual bullying.

Bullying often includes these things and more, but there is a difference between actual bullying and other childish nastiness. Bullying is ongoing; it involves intimidation and threats by the same person or group over and over again, often at random times and places, so that the victim never knows when to expect it. It is always done by someone who is stronger or has some kind of advantage over the victim, so that it produces within the victim a sense of fear, dread, and helplessness that never really goes away.

This difference matters. Children who are teased, mocked, made fun of, or tormented in any of the myriad ways children are uniquely capable of, desperately need to learn how to manage life in a fallen world filled with other flawed human beings without necessarily viewing this as bullying. A child needs the assurance that while sometimes people are unkind, they need not always be feared. It is important for parents to help their children understand that people–all people–are prone to selfishness, that all through life they will encounter people who don’t much like them, and that the words and actions of these people do not change the fact that your child is loved and valued for who he is, regardless of what someone else says.

This is not to excuse the child who is unkind; in fact, it’s important to explain to your child that unkind words and actions are wrong, and that you are not expecting the child to excuse the actions of an unkind person. What I am saying is that it is more important to help your child learn to forgive an offense such as unkindness or occasional teasing than to get the other child back or get him/her in trouble.

As a teacher and former school administrator, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to observe mothers irate over the way their child has been treated by another student. In many cases,(though not all), something pretty negative has transpired between the two students. In nearly every situation, nobody has actually seen what happened, except perhaps other students, who are not always completely forthcoming (or truthful) in their account of what happened. Very often the mother of the offended child wants some kind of retribution–the other child must pay for what they did to my child! In fact, the mother of the other child should probably be reprimanded as well, in the opinion of Mom #1. You see the problem.

Let me just insert here that, as the mother of five children, I have had the very same urge. I’m also pretty confident that at least some of my own children were responsible for being unkind to other kids from time to time, although back then I don’t think I could have accepted the possibility very well. This is where the “sissy” part of this column comes in. Moms, if you insist on intervening for your child every time somebody makes fun of him or teases him, you will either produce a child who has figured out how to manipulate you to get special treatment, or a child who views him or herself as a victim and who may never be resilient or confident. This child was called a "sissy" in the old days, because he or she always ran crying to Mommy.

Again, please hear me when I say that bullying–genuine bullying–is reprehensible, and must be dealt with very seriously. And remember that I am not in any way suggesting that it’s okay for kids to be unkind to other kids.

What I am saying, again, is that it is more important for your child to learn to deal with the painful realities of human nature, without your intervention, than it is for you to get revenge on a child and his parents.

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