By Tory Joseph
“He punched her in the face.”
“He pushed her down the stairs.”
“She asked her to sit on the bus with her, then deliberately sat with someone else.”
“He rates the kids on the playground and gets away with it, because they’re afraid of him.”
Some mean behaviors can be classified as acts of bullying because they are repetitive, but others are simply immature and mean. What’s the difference? Either way, no parent wants a child to act with, or be treated with, contempt.
There are kids who have to go to school every day worrying about being ridiculed, pushed around, teased or deliberately left out. Other kids are bullies, support the bully or stand idly by. There are even teachers and coaches who model mean-spirited behavior. My son had a coach who called him “shrimp” and a teacher who called another boy “lard ass.”
This sort of thing goes on every day, and it erodes the self-respect of everyone involved. Bullied kids develop survival strategies instead of social skills. They do what it takes to get rid of the pain, which can have dire consequences. Parents often confront school administrators, who essentially say that there’s nothing they can do.
There is no such thing as an innocent bystander, and no excuse for indifference when one witnesses cruel behavior. When we are indifferent to violence we are promoting apathy, and thus condoning hatred. What sort of model are we setting for our youth when we do nothing? If children can’t trust adults to step up, is it any surprise when they are afraid to speak up about mistreatment they see?
There is a process for solving bullying situations, and it’s not to punish the bully. Punishment deprives a person of the opportunity to understand the consequences of their behavior, and to empathize with the victim. We must preserve the dignity of the person who’s been mean, because this will help the person see himself or herself as decent, caring and responsible. This person will then want to change their behavior—to apologize, fix what they did wrong and find ways to keep it from happening again.
As parents we can begin by modeling how to do what is right, even at personal cost. We need to demonstrate that we have a social conscience. If we help to create opportunities to “do good,” our children will see that helping others feels a lot better than putting them down.
We can show that, as adults, we don’t have to succumb to peer pressure and overindulge our kids by buying them that coveted outfit or the latest technology update, thereby contributing to a sense of entitlement. We also don’t have to bail our kids out when they get in trouble, so they can learn that they are responsible for their actions.
In order for children to develop the courage to stand up for what is right, they need the strength that comes from learning how to solve problems. It takes that kind of strength to risk being the outsider when the popular crowd’s behavior is harmful to others. It takes that kind of strength to act with integrity when confronted with a bullying situation.
Democratic parenting helps children gain confidence in their own abilities through experience, mutual respect and responsibility for their actions. It also helps children learn to balance their own needs in relation to the needs of others, and to resolve conflicts peacefully. This is the training that prepares a child to face those difficult situations that can test anyone’s strength to stand up for what is right.
Tory Joseph is a certified parent educator, a frequent leader of PEP classes and a past president of PEP’s board of directors.