“Would you rather your kid be a bully or be bullied?” my friend asked a few years ago, back when our boys were still in diapers.
We grew up asking each other these kinds of questions — sprawled out in my childhood bedroom, arguing over the “Would You Rather” questions printed in that month’s YM magazine — but now we’re grown-ups. And this “Would You Rather” had a grown-up weight to it.
She’d rather her son be the bully. She couldn’t stomach the thought of someone hurting her baby, which I understand on a deep, primal level. Yet I couldn’t agree with her. I don’t want to think of my baby being hurt, but what would it mean if he were the bully? If he took out his aggression on an innocent kid, and purposefully hurt another child? What would that say about his hurt? His character? His insecurity? What kind of guilt and issues might he have as an adult? If my boy was bullied, on the other hand, it has the chance of making him stronger and more compassionate. Right?
I reluctantly settled on an answer. Keep in mind my son was brand new, and the prospect of him being out in the big world without me was like imagining an alternate universe. Ask me that question now — he’s off in kindergarten as I type, interacting with 20-odd kids on his own — and I just may stuff my fingers in my ears and walk away. That’s emotional sensory overload.
Still, that simple question jolted something in me. It made me realize how strongly I feel about raising him to never be the bully. More than that, raising him in a way that makes the idea of bullying preposterous — enough that he’ll step in and stop mean-kid behavior on an instinctual level.
Because I refuse to raise a bully.
I was sitting at the kitchen table with my five-year-old boy, and he was showing me what he colored in kindergarten that day. We’re roughly 35 days into the school year, and I’ve already learned that “So how was your day?” leads to squat. Instead, the good stories and insights come out when I least expect them to — like when he’s about to fall asleep, or while I’m prepping dinner.
Now was one of those times.
“James just scribbles on his paper,” he told me. (His name isn’t James, but let’s call him James. I know James, actually. He’s one of those quirky kids bursting with personality that you know won’t be appreciated until his classmates look back as adults, wondering whatever happened to him. He’s an outside-the-box fella’, a bit different than the norm.)
“Oh yeah?” I asked. “Maybe scribbles are his best.”
“The kids at the table tell him he’s doing a good job,” he says.
I beam with mama pride.
“They say, ‘Good coloring James,’” he draws out those last three words in a real sarcastic tone. Then he holds his hand up to his mouth like a dramatic Michelle Tanner and loudly whispers, “NO IT’S NOT” with a smile on his face.
And there goes that pride, right down to the pit of my stomach.
“Do you say that too?” I asked. He said no in a way that made me think “yes,” and I scrambled to push away the guilt and “shoulds” to find the teachable moment. Even if he didn’t join in, he at least stayed quiet and smiled along. And that’s not acceptable. I realized that even the most empathetic kids can be swayed by a group of giggles and the promise of fitting in.
So there I was with 140 characters to respond before his “LECTURE! LECTURE! ABORT ATTENTION!” alarm would go off, shutting down any meaningful conversation.
I asked if he saw James’ face when that happened. “How do you think he felt?”
“How do you think James would feel if he sees everyone making fun of him?”
“How would you feel if kids at the table were whispering and laughing about your drawing?”
At this point he caught on and the eyes started to roll. The “I KNOW, I KNOW MOM” sighs would follow, I just knew it. So I reached across the table, looked him in the eye and said the only thing that might stick:
“What do you think Spiderman would have done if he were sitting at that table? Do you think he would have stayed quiet, or would he have stood up to the bullies?”
“BULLIES?” his eyes were wide.
I was chopping up some peppers for the kids to snack on. Two neighborhood boys were at my house, as they always are, and I knew they’d be hungry.
Suddenly another neighborhood kid’s name was brought into the conversation. I heard the words “idiot” and “dummy.”
“It’s never nice to say that about someone,” my boy piped up. “How would you like it if I said that about you?”
“I don’t care,” his friend scoffed.
“Well maybe you would. You should think about that.” he answered.
And my mama heart smiled.
For more information on addressing and preventing bullying in your school and community, please visit PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center.