There has been ample information in the news the past few years (and months) about bullying in schools. I follow those links and articles and often wind up feeling a little hopeless, at least at first.
As a parent, I want to raise my children to look out for others, to stand up for their friends, and to step in when they see things going wrong. I also want them to be strong and confident and to have resilience in the case that someone bullies them. It feels like a conundrum. How do we raise children to be peaceable, kind, and supportive of their friends, while also making sure they don’t have a “victim” target plastered to their forehead.
Here are my thoughts on both raising a child not to bully, and how to help them NOT be bullied as well, plus some resources at the bottom of the page.
On Raising Kids Not To Bully-
Empathy is, for me, the most important tool in teaching children not to bully, to recognize dynamics of bullying, and helping them feel confident in stepping up when they see bullying happening.
If you are a spiritual or religious person you are probably familiar with the passage, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” There are other versions of this edict across spiritual paths, but it’s empathy in a nutshell. Think about how you might feel and how you’d like to be treated, and then treat people that way.
How do you teach this?
—-If you are in the car and someone cuts you off, do you yell nasty words at the driver, honking your horn and blaming them for your feelings or do you take a breathe, wonder why they were in such a hurry and hope that they start driving more safely?
—-How do you and your partner/spouse/co-parent interact? Little eyes and little ears pay close attention. If you push each other around, try to score points, or “win” at household dynamics, that will sink in and your kids may mimic that behavior at school
—-Seek opportunities to help others through volunteering, church or spiritual institutions, schools and neighborhoods. Lots of neighborhoods have gardens that need tending, or residents that might need chores done.
—-When you see a person in need, whether at the store or on a walk, stop and ask if they need help. Simple to do, sends a huge message to kids.
—-When you are watching a movie or tv program and you see an instance of bullying, it’s a great time to ask your child what they think about that moment, and really listen. Your child telling you about their experience, and you really paying attention is a huge meta/micro exercise in empathy and connection. Letting them pick out what the dynamics of bullying is helps them see it in real life and avoid it, get help, or intervene.
—-Have pets-any pet is awesome from a turtle to a big dog. Taking care of pets teaches children that they have to notice and think about others. This teaches empathy and compassion along with responsibility.
I also am a big fan of calling out negative dynamics when I see them and discussing them. Kids truly want to understand systems. Mine ask me “why” all the time. So we talk about the whys of bullying.
I ask them to imagine why someone would want to hurt others and then we talk about what they think. I ask if they ever feel that way about other people, but I don’t shame them if they admit to wanting to push others around. We talk about times I’ve felt that way and how I moved my thinking and actions into more productive forms.
I also think it’s important to admit to your kids that you’ve been on one side or the other of that dynamic. Let them hear about what hurt, what didn’t. What you did or didn’t do, choices you would have made differently. It helps them feel less alone and like they aren’t the only child this is happening to, no matter if it is bullying or being bullied.
On Not Being Bullied:
So it’s all well and good to teach these empathic skills, but what happens if it is your child that is on the “being bullied” side of things. Sometimes this happens for no good reason at all, the bullies of a class might shift their targets based on random issues or specific dynamics.
It goes without saying that confidence inspires others. Confident kids can weather difficulties and keep thriving. How is confidence instilled?
—-Make sure your kids have ample access to good friends. Never underestimate the power of a core group of friends for increasing the inner confidence of kids. Even if those kids live across town, make sure they can hang out, have spend the nights, create and play together.
—-If your child has something he or she LOVES to do, make doing that a huge priority. Rock climbing? Ballet? Art? Get that kid the resources he or she needs to be awesome at that skill. Get them the opportunities to shine and be seen as competent and in control.
—-Listen when they talk about difficulties at school. Don’t immediately tell them how to handle the problem but ask them what they think will help. Believe their emotions and really listen to them.
—Practical skills like karate classes, running, comedy, self defense of all kinds—seems like a strange thing to say, but knowing they have some power (physically or otherwise) in some way gives a huge boost of confidence.
—Help your child learn who his or her allies are in a school. Favorite teachers? Kids in older grades? Help your child maximize those alliances so he or she doesn’t feel alone.
—Teach children how to pick battles wisely. In the first section, we talked about not bullying and also standing up for kids when things are going wrong. Your children need to know how to discern which situations are for them to fight back against, or which are ones to get a teacher or another adult.
What else can you do?
—Let them know that you’ll listen, that you’ll believe them, and that you’ll help them if they can’t help themselves.
—Be willing and ready to go work with the school if there is a situation that is getting difficult for them.
—Help them write or create or tell their story. Help them find new endings to those stories if they are stuck in a victim role.
—Be willing to critically examine what strength means to you and to your family. There is more strength in vulnerability then most of us know and it’s easy to get caught up in victim blaming when really, it’s the bully who should be called out.
—Find local groups to help promote peaceful environments in your schools. Here in Austin, we have Creative Action which creates courageous leaders in schools.
Avail yourself of resources because none of us know how to make these changes on our own. There are loads out there, but here are some links to help you get started.