Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Giving Your Child Armor Against Bullies

Public schools are microcosms, little mirror images of the society at large. Along those halls walk adults under construction, and they carry with them the attitudes and codes of their own communities. If they leave from a home where sarcasm reigns, then the chances are good that the child will be sarcastic at school. If children come from a family that laughs with each other, then they will probably have a more keenly developed sense of humor.


But all is not Nurture as parents of large families will quickly tell you. Nature has an equal claim to the child. The same genetic mingling may produce an extrovert and an introvert, a heterosexual and a homosexual, and these children must make their way in school where understanding is also under construction. Young boys and girls, adolescents, and teenagers seek their own identities and purposes day after day. They test the values and principles that their families hold dear. Often that testing involves comparing and contrasting peers.


A few peers seem destined to be picked last for everything simply because they are perceived as different. Their skin color stands out, they are shorter or taller than everyone else, their taste in clothing diverges from the current trend, their vocabularies are bigger, their imaginations boundless, their speech halting or lisping. These different kids endure teasing from the larger group; they become the bullied.


My own daughter endured verbal insults. She sprouted taller than her peers in elementary school. Of course, the others caught up and sometimes surpassed her by high school, but those interim years were rough, especially after she developed severe acne several years ahead of her peers. One young boy, who later developed the sort of acne that makes high school kids miserable, often insulted my child.


I told her that I understood how much it hurts and explained that few people stand up to hurtful words and gestures without some doubt or fear wiggling through the gut. I told her to ignore the hurtful words, not to believe them, not to give them any power over her, but I knew she would take the hurtful words to heart anyway. How many of us are so sure of ourselves that we never feel the sting of insults and judgments?


I talked to my child about her strengths and talents, about her good heart, reassuring her that character matters more than appearance, but her certainty about real beauty was years away. She needed affirmation from people besides parents. She didn’t and couldn’t trust her parents to be completely objective.


So I offered her a retort--words that she could use when that snarky, insecure boy said, “Nice pimples.”


I told her to say, “Thanks for seeing the real me.” And it worked. He never repeated his insult again. Apparently a conscience was under construction in that boy.


Probably more important, this exchange took place just as my daughter and her tormentor were rushing to science class. The teacher overheard the exchange and said to my daughter, loud enough for him to overhear, “I like what you had to say. That shows real maturity.”


I am still grateful to that teacher for paying attention and speaking up. Kids need to hear from people other than Mom and Dad. The judgment of outsiders is so important to them as they go through separation phases, and this outsider was a trusted authority figure. Her opinion mattered and made my child smile. She also felt good enough about her retort to use it again whenever the need arose.


Be assured that I don’t believe for a minute that the young tormentor was a bad child from a bad home. He was simply still growing and learning to discern. He wasn’t yet sure for what and whom to stand. He needed more time to cook as a human being, and he turned out just fine, at least through high school, post-puberty, perhaps because his own acne humbled him.


My daughter turned out better than fine. Those days of being different are still part of her character, but they have helped her learn empathy. They also made her stronger and more sure of her true self.


If I could create the world, no child would ever doubt his worth and beauty. All children would have equal opportunities to fulfill the promise that lies within them. But since many children endure insults and baseless judgments, teach them to value the “real person” in themselves and others. It’s a timeless lesson, one that must be taught, re-taught, and taught once more through each phase and stage of childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and beyond.