Friday, March 4, 2016

One night my then third grader told me in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, Today a boy I did not know asked me if I wanted my teeth knocked out. He said that we were in his lunch space and that we should move. 
This statement certainly shattered my belief that I held for years - belief that our "distinguished California school" with mostly upper middle class demographics does not have a bullying problem. I was proud of our community for supporting strong anti-bullying policies and my daughter had never before let on that bullying is pretty much alive in her school just as it is alive in every school across America. So is there anything we can do to protect our children from bullying? Read on.
Protecting our children against bullying by peers

Let's Face the Facts

Your child might never talk about bullying at home, but it does not mean that this behavior does not exist in his or her school. There might be different reasons why this topic might not come up in conversations at home.
  • Your child does not want to "tattle" on others.
  • Your child is a victim and is too intimidated to speak up.
  • Your child is a bully and unwilling to admit it or, perhaps, not aware of effect his/her behavior has on others.
  • Your child is genuinely unaware of bullying because he/she spends their entire time in the circle of their friends. More on that later.

Who Are the Victims?

Is it likely that your child might end up as a victim of bullying? The chances are significantly higher if your child is an outlier whose behavior or appearance differs somehow from the mainstream. If you consider our evolutionary drive to belong to a tribe and to associate with "healthy" and "respected" members of that tribe, certain degree of power struggle between children can expected. Unfortunately, this power struggle often degenerates into ugly forms of mental torture and physical aggression towards the kids who do not fit the mold.

Do Anti-Bullying Programs Work?

Our school is actively participating in our county's anti-bullying initiative called Project Cornerstone. Parent volunteers are spending many hours in the classroom every month reading books and leading activities design to turn bystanders to bullying into upstanders. Yet, in Smarty's class kids said that they would vote to stop this program. Why? Because the curriculum repeats every 3 years, and now fourth graders read the same books and do practically the same activities that they did when they were in the first grade. Not surprisingly, they find it a bit lame, and it would be much better if curriculum were divided into younger elementary school K-2 and higher grades (3-5). Still, I do not want to bash the program. Overall, our school has a strong and healthy community and aggressive bullying is not common. More importantly, students learn to stand for themselves when bullied. When another student threatened to knock my daughter's teeth out unless she moved to a different spot, she did not budge and did not comply with the request? Why? Here comes my most important discovery about what really stops bullying.

Best Protection from Bullying

Your child is a lot less likely to be bullied if he or she has friends. Your child does not have to belong to a big group, but as long as he or she has just one good friend, bullies have much harder time to target your child. For once, a friend might stand up for a bullying victim. Secondly, even if another child does not have courage to directly interfere, he/she can corroborate an incident when reported by your child. It's very difficult for administration to act on bullying reports if there are no witnesses and perpetrators deny that anything took place. That happened to a son of my friends who had to be pulled out of school, because constant bullying was taking a huge toll on his mental health. Administration was powerless to help, since there were no outside witnesses.
My daughter is not a part of a big group, but she has one very close friend. They spend almost all recess and lunch time together, and they were standing up to the bullies together telling them that school grounds are not anybody's personal property, and that they were first to come to this lunch spot. They also told the bullies that they would report them. The other group retreated and my daughter and her friend learned an important lesson and felt competent and confident. When I asked Smarty that night whether I should talk to school about this incident, she said, Why should you get involved? We already handled it. She was right. To my knowledge, they were left alone since then.

Happy Little Bubble?

There is benefit and cost of having one close friend. My Smarty and her friend effectively closed themselves to others creating their own little bubble. They are content, but there is an "opportunity cost" to it as well as complete oblivion to what is happening around them. For example, Smarty was very shocked when her classmate of a mixed race revealed demeaning and racist comments made to him by some students (apparently, he refused to name perpetrators). She has never seen this coming, but, on closer questioning, she acknowledged that she barely interacts with this boy and with a vast majority of her classmates outside the classroom. Not surprisingly, she is not going to win Ms. Popularity titles any time soon, but as long as she has this one friend and several "buddies" she seems completely fine with her social status as a "floater" who does not belong to any tribe except her own tribe consisting of two people. 

Can You Help Your Child Make Friends?

If life were so simple! No, making friends is actually up to our children. At least we can easily understand if they have friends in school, by asking these two simple questions:

  • Who did you sit with at lunch?
  • What did you do during recess?
Older children will find this last piece of advice embarrassing, but you can definitely help your younger child to get closer to others by reaching out to parents of kids he or she has expressed interest in and organizing one on one playdates. Many children are more likely to appreciate each other and to click during 1:1 time than during chaotic recess times when they have so many competing priorities. The Soccer Mom Blog has a great article on what to do when a child struggles to make friends at school.

How Do Other Families Deal With Bullying?

Check out stories from my fellow bloggers who send their children to public schools:

Your Turn

What is one thing that helps with bullying?

What is your personal story when it comes to bullying?

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Christy McGuire said...

It seems we might do well to worry less about bullies and more about making sure everyone has friends.

Ticia said...

I found middle school to be very hard because I didn't have any particularly good friends at school.

shelah moss said...

One good friend can make all the difference in the world. My daughter had a bully in second grade. I believe that because we were able to come to a resolution, she became stronger from the experience.

maryanne @ mama smiles said...

I like your questions for figuring out if kids are making friends!

perez said...

From personal experience, any kind of martial arts helps the children build confidence that deters any bullies. Also, talking to your children and building their self-esteem is key. Explain that bullies are really sad people who really need help.