It was not my child. No; I was sure of it. He couldn’t possibly be the mastermind behind all of the teasing that’s been happening at school.
Still, I was surprised to hear that he was there for it all, observing from the sidelines. If I were to expect anyone to jump in, it would be him. Historically, he’s always been a bit eccentric himself, but I am guessing the suppression of of his own uniqueness may be what added to his desire to fit in — thus explaining his role as a sideline participant.
His explanation for not stepping in? “I just want to fit in with the class.”
Well, don’t we all do that to some degree?
In this particular situation, the kid at the center of the teasing is one known for talking just a bit too much, and relishing the attention he gets from adults and peers. In some sense, we all know this kid well: He’s the class clown. Except his antics don’t always elicit much laughter. He’s larger than the rest of the kids too, and I sometimes wonder if that also contributes to it. But mostly, I just think it’s his immature personality. I have explained to my children that no one means to “be annoying;” but my children beg to differ.
This latest issue in school came during a harmless game of tag on the school playground — during which one child started shouting that the boy had cooties. It wasn’t long before the others joined in.
Now, I am not usually quick to call someone a “bully.” Mostly because it’s a bit overused at my house at this point — a sort of “crying wolf” my kids play. I’ve had to extinguish many fires while trying to clearly define “typical annoying sibling behavior” vs. out-and-out bullying. I’m just a mom too, though, and don’t always know which category each behavior falls into — particularly when I’m not there to see it go down — so I use my best judgement and err on the side of caution. (Especially when it applies to children that don’t belong to me.)
The cootie accusation, however, is a problem on so many levels. And so, once I heard about the incident, I asked my son the standard question: “How would that make you feel?” To that, he replied, “bad,” and lowered his head, signaling his own feelings of guilt. I hoped this meant he knew that he had not been the kind of friend I hope to be raising.
“He even thought it was funny!” my son shot back. But when he said this, I couldn’t help but think to myself, This is how the class clown is born, just trying to laugh it off. Through my head went the old saying about sticks and stones. But how many of us have found words hurt most of all?
I should probably explain now that my caution when it comes to matters of bullying is propelled by my own history of unkindness. That’s right, I was once a mean girl.
Ashamed, I told all four of my children that I knew all too well about bullying from experience — and not as a victim. My own checkered past ended quickly in the second grade, but not before I left some damage. To be honest, I still feel the sting of shame from those days, even though I have asked for forgiveness and been forgiven.
But mostly when I think of bullying today, I think of the future and consider my youngest son, Amos — who at two-and-a-half does not yet speak and will be in the special needs classroom next year. I asked my older son how he would feel if we ever heard that people were laughing at Amos, and saying he had cooties.
This time my son said, “We would stand up for him.”
“Exactly,” I said.
The gray area was suddenly no longer cloudy to him, but crystal clear.
It’s in our nature to protect our own — our children, our dearest friends, our spouses, our siblings — but I as I try with all my might to teach my children, this is not enough. My son may not have been the bully today, but he is guilty by association. And that child that has the “cooties?” He’s someone else’s son or brother. Just because he’s not mine doesn’t mean I can breathe a sigh of relief — and it doesn’t mean my son’s instincts shouldn’t go up, either.
The truth of the matter is, I don’t exactly know how to teach this, but I am trying. Some days, I volunteer at their school. I walk the same halls they do, and eat lunch in the same cafeteria, and I notice things. I notice who seems ignored or sits alone, and I make a point of being kind, hoping that perhaps my modeling will help. I email other parents in the class and share what I witness — both the good and the bad — just to check in and build a community of open dialogue between families and teachers, that is not entirely filtered through what we see of each other on social media.
And when my son defended himself with a truthful revelation, “I just want to fit in with my class,” I didn’t scold him in a harsh way; Instead, I gently corrected him. “Is fitting in today worth it,” I asked. “Is it worth being remembered as the person who was not a real friend?”
As a teacher friend of mine once said, we must teach kids to “stand up for what is right, even if you’re standing alone.” As a child, I not only didn’t stand alone, but I instigated the bullying. I started it, and others followed. And isn’t that how it all really begins? In reality, there are many more observers than there are instigators — those who are unsure of what to do or who fear the repercussions that may come if they voice their protest. This group should not be ignored, or let off the hook — in some ways, they hold all the power.
No, it was not my child today; but that is not good enough for me.