A friend’s teenager recently became the victim of ridicule and taunting. Not a little sarcasm or practical jokes. Brutal, denigrating comments that spread like a virus through his school. A scenario that all parents dread. No one wants his child to be the brunt, or hurt, or the prey.
For more years than I care to remember, I always thought a situation like this called for sympathy and protection for the target. I provided lots of both plus advice out the ying-yang.
I’ve gradually changed my mind. Remembering how my kids learned to walk, they fell plenty of times. Certainly I tried to prevent them tumbling out a window or down a flight of stairs, but I knew bruises and cuts were inevitable, and that’s the way they gained experience. Ditto bike riding, skating, skiing.
Our job as adults is not to insure children are never hurt; it’s to help them learn how to handle the pain. Not to rush in and defend them or solve the problem. Experience and thought are great teachers, even through heartache.
We do have techniques we can use that might smooth the path a bit:
* Some kind of positive action almost always helps the sufferer deal better with the situation. My guess is he gains a sense of control over his life. Again, we can help him identify methods. This turns the pain outward rather than inward, where it might fester and cause problems such as suicide attempts. Ideas: write a story expressing emotion, help another kid in trouble, draw a picture of the incident.
* Almost never does a casualty want advice. He wants acknowledgement of his pain, feedback on his perceptions, and assurance someone cares. This goes for adults as well as kids. How often have you told a friend what to do to get rid of the jerk she’s with? Has she ever listened and acted?
* Asking questions is almost always better than making statements. “What did you think?” “How did you feel?” “What else might you have done?” “What could you do if this happens again?” Then you’re using the incident as a teaching opportunity. Educators call this “the teachable moment.”
* Bullying, torment, discrimination, and abuse are universal. We can’t eliminate them. Acknowledge they can be learning experiences with positive results, as we gain strength and knowledge about human relationships. Such diverse resources as Harvard, the Marines, and business consultant Jim Collins mention crucible events in their work, the fires in life through which we pass and either melt or grow stronger and better. When we realize bad experiences can, indeed, help us, we may be able to pass this along to our kids.
* Humans learn so much more from failure and negatives than we do successes and positives. Appreciating this reality helps us deal with our kids’ pain. And stories about our own similar incidents (“There was the time someone called me four-eyes.” “There was the time I was the only one not invited to the party.”) can give subtle support to our kids.
* Because bullying, torment, discrimination, and abuse are universal, we need to help kids gain the tools to deal with them independently. We’re not always going to be around. Talking with them, researching resources, directing them to books, movies, and websites dealing with the topic are avenues for their adjustment.
* We all know kids learn from our examples and responses. We model our belief that positive change is possible, how to deal with rejection and failure, and the methods we use to move beyond and better.
Years ago, Rick Nelson gave the world his advice, once and always true. “But it’s all right now, I’ve learned my lesson well. You see, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.”
Hey, I take my philosophy where I find it.
There was a time, and it may still be upon us, when parents tried to breed out, condition, or reason away aggressiveness in children. I remember refusing to buy my son a gun, erroneously thinking I was a pacifist, and by gum, he’d be one, too. Kind of a strange position for someone who married an Irish ex-Marine notorious for swinging fists in his youth.
So I should have been delighted when my 19-month-old grandson Asher turned out to be so non-aggressive he bordered on cowardly. At library story hours, he backed away from babies, especially if they made noises. Playgrounds presented numerous threats, with other kids elbowing to get to the slide ladder first or claiming the shovel and pail in the sandbox. He perpetually refused to stand up for himself. However, I was worried.
I was surprised at my dismay, but as a person who shies away from any type of conflict, I know the disadvantages of timidity. Assertiveness may not be essential for a toddler but is a major disadvantage in adult life. “Nice guys finish last,” right?
Fortunately, I had no idea how to train him in the manly arts. And nature seems to be taking care of the problem. Last week at the library, now at nearly 24 months old Asher stepped up and refused to let a little girl snatch the stuffed animal he had his hands on. “No, no, no,” he pronounced clearly. And she backed away.
Not egregious* behavior in his case, because it means my grandson isn’t fated to be bullied. Through natural development, he’s learning to stand up for himself. Oh, he still shrieks and runs at the sight of certain wind-up toys, and weird-looking masks he avoids like the plague. Our floor fan is viewed with suspicion. But he’s demonstrated a healthy dose of determination, combined with a sense of purpose, when most important.
And by the way, my son did get his childhood wish for guns. He just had to buy them with his own allowance. * egregious: extremely bad, outrageous, shocking