Sunday, November 12, 2017


A reader asked for my thoughts on bullying.  I've avoided the topic for awhile because I don't think I know that much about it.  Nevertheless, bullying is so common, so harmful, and so relevant to our times, that I find I'm thinking about it a lot.  

Most of my experience has been in early childhood education, where we see the seeds of bullying, but not real bullying per se.  It begins when children try to attach dire consequences to not getting what they want:  "If you don't let me play with your new toy, you can't come to my party", or "I won't be your friend".  They've learned that undesirable behaviors have consequences, and they try to intimidate their friend to satisfy their wants.  These children can be taught to use better language.  The adults in their lives should point out that words can be as hurtful as as hitting.  Telling someone they can't come to your party will hurt their feelings, and not be true anyway.  It's better to be direct:  "That's a great toy.  Can I have a turn?".  If the child is denied a turn, we can help her find something else to play with, talk about her favorite playthings, involve her in another activity.  We can also ask the child with the special toy to grant a few minutes to his friend, or think about a way that they can play with it together.  Without adult guidance, can this turn into bullying as they get older?

Another germ of bullying in early childhood can be seen when a child is excluded from play.  "You can't play with us".  This is very difficult for adults to witness and so painful to the child.  We expect everyone to be friends and get along.  Realistically though, this is not so easy.  Even as adults, we click better with some people than others, we prefer to spend time with some friends over others.  This happens with children, too.  However, telling someone they can't play is rude and hurtful.  We made a rule in my early childhood programs that "You can't say you can't play".  In school, learning to get along with others, maybe especially with those who are different, is a core part of the curriculum.  

Of course no one would ever ask, but any four year old could name the "weird" kid in his class.  Children who present differently than their peers can make those around them uncomfortable.  It's hard to relate and find common ground.  This is where the teacher must step in and seek ways to "normalize" the child; show respect and use positive language for his ideas and his class work; find ways to include him in play with others, either through a board game, which forces turn-taking, or simply sharing toys at the play-dough or sand tables.  Sitting with the child at these times to facilitate conversations will help him integrate with his classmates.  Again, if there is no adult guidance in this scenario, can this become bullying?

Bullying among older children is harder to pinpoint because it does not take place in front of adults.  I remember a girl in my elementary school that was called the "Cootie Queen".  Boys especially would laugh and make fun of her regularly.  I'm ashamed to say, I did nothing, and even understood why they called her that.  She was always dirty, with greasy hair and raggedy clothes.  She was very quiet and withdrawn.  In this case, the bullies were saying aloud what others were thinking.  And in this case, I think the adults could have done more to prevent the taunts.  A caring teacher could have talked to the girl about hygiene and called the parents.  One of the hardest calls I ever made as an early childhood director was to the parents of a child who smelled terribly.  The parents determined that she wasn't wiping herself properly after toileting.  I don't know, but I like to think that we saved her from being teased.

There are many school programs to combat bullying.  In general, I think the best way to fight it is to make it cool to be kind.  Adults should refrain from gossip.  We need to watch our words when talking about people or institutions, like the school.  We should not allow our children to talk badly about anyone.  Talking badly about someone can turn to talking badly to someone. Children should also either avoid, or at least be taught about, TV characters who are portrayed as 'stupid', 'nerdy', less than others.  It is so important to find the good in everyone and speak kindly.

Victims of bullying need support. Teachers and parents should encourage them to report any incident that makes them uncomfortable.  Reporting incidents of bullying is not tattling.  Parents can take note of any social skills that their child may need to strengthen.  We can teach her to make eye contact, to use good posture, to modulate her voice so it's not too loud and not too soft.   Encourage children to pursue  their special interests in a club or summer camp where they might meet other children who share those interests.  We can also encourage play dates, and participation in social events at school or in the neighborhood.  A child who can count on trusted adults, who feels good about herself, and who has one or two close friends should be less likely to feel like a victim.

The effects of bullying can be fatal, as we've seen too many times.  Teens especially are so sensitive to what others say and think about them.  Maybe that's one reason they're addicted to social media.  Technology can be our worst enemy in fighting bullying.  We all must recognize the power of words, and teach our kids to never put anything in writing that they wouldn't say to someone's face.  Words hurt, maybe more so in writing, where the tone is left to our imagination.

I believe we were all made in the image of G-d.  Every life is sacred.  If we try hard to speak and act as if we really believe that, maybe our children will learn kindness and stop bullying.  I hope so.  

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