Life with Liz: Dealing with bullies
Recently, statistics on bullying in local school districts were published in the newspaper. From the comments in the article from administrators, and from the comments that have run wild on social media, this seems to be another situation where we can all agree there is definitely a problem, but what the limits and the scope of that problem are, and how we resolve that problem, are not easy answers for parents, for school personnel, for coaches and for kids themselves.
I’ve had a lot of conversations about it with the Wonderful Husband, with other parents, with teachers and I’ve read tons of comments on Facebook. The responses have run the gamut.
I’ve met parents who think that a good punch in the mouth is all a bully needs. I’ve met parents who think that bullying is part of growing up and learning to deal with it prepares you for the realities that you’ll face for the rest of your life. I’ve met parents who have pulled their kids out of schools or off teams or completely moved the whole family to escape a bad situation. I’ve met teachers and administrators who throw their hands up in despair and say there is only so much we can do, and I’ve met teachers and administrators who are determined to save every kid.
I was bullied as a kid. My thick glasses, my home life on the farm, my good grades, my love of books, my complete and total lack of athletic ability and coordination. Yes, I was an easy target. I hated going to school and would cry myself to sleep every night. Luckily, I transferred to another school in middle school, and acutely aware of all the things that had made me an outcast, I reinvented myself.
Luckily, I had parents who were supportive, but who also pushed me to stand up for myself and be proud of who I was. I tend to agree that the hell fires of elementary school did help forge me into the mentally strong person that I am today, but at the same time, I wish I had more memories of my childhood that didn’t involve getting called “pig girl.”
Bullying is one of those things that I have worried about since the second I had kids. I’ve watched like a hawk through all their activities for evidence that they were being bullied, or worse: being bullies. When I’ve witnessed behavior that was questionable, I’ve tried to have a dialogue with them about feelings: their own, and how they think other people must feel. At the same time, I’ve tried to let them navigate the arguments and disagreements that always come up in children’s lives.
One of the most heartbreaking experiences I’ve had to watch is my own daughter becoming the victim of bullies and how quickly she changed from a sparkly, outgoing child who loved school to a weeping mess who laid on the floor every morning begging me not to make her go to school. What was even more heartbreaking was that even though we had evidence and witnesses to the bullying and requested a meeting with the administrator of the school, the response was that the episode described by my child could not possibly have happened, and therefore, no action of any sort was taken and instead it was hinted that we needed to deal with a child who was making up stories.
What was alarming about this situation was that the administrator did not even take the time to hear my child out. Clearly something had happened. E was quite clear in her recounting several specific stories, and G confirmed her version of the events. (When asked why he didn’t stop these other children from picking on his sister, he informed us that those kids are very mean and he didn’t want him picking on him, too.)
We had also heard from several other classmates’ parents that the same children in question had harassed their children, too. I’m not naive enough to think that my child was innocent or blameless in the incident, but I thought at the very least my child deserved a chance to be heard.
For me, a conversation is the first step that needs to happen. At the very least, a message is sent that someone out there cares about your feelings enough to listen to them. Sometimes, knowing that you matter to one person can make all the difference. I didn’t expect retribution or punishment involved for the other child, but I did want my child to experience an open-minded adult who provided a safe place for her to explain what was upsetting her. I had hoped to then discuss what steps she could take to respond better in this situation, whether it involved her alone, or her teachers, or her administrator, or her family. Instead, she was made to feel like she did something wrong.
Luckily, we were able to pull her out of that school, but that wasn’t without its own trauma, and it has literally taken years for her to rebuild and put her trust back in the people she is around every day. I know her teachers have taken a lot of extra time and energy to rebuild that trust, and I appreciate everything they’ve done for her.
The whole experience was eye-opening for me. Since then, I’ve discussed it, and other situations, with many people. One thing is clear: Many people can acknowledge that this was a situation that merited time and attention, but most people who spend time in schools also say that time is at a premium, and they just don’t have the time to deal with every student with the care that they need.
Many others cite a lack of parental involvement or awareness as something that has changed in recent years. Others cite too much parental involvement, especially on social media.
At least the conversation has been started. Today, the same social media that can be the cause of the problem can also be a solution. Apps like Safe2Say and other online resources give kids a chance to speak up privately. Many schools have implemented anti-bullying campaigns from high school on down. Movements like “Be the Nice Kid” have gained momentum, in schools and on social media.
I don’t think this is a problem with no solution, I just think that all of us are going to have to work a lot harder to come up with the answers. Our kids are worth it.
Liz Pinkey is a contributing writer to the Times News. Her column appears weekly in our Saturday feature section.