Friday, February 24, 2012

Rotten Made of Cotton

Let’s be clear about this. I oppose bullying as much as the next parent. I was bullied myself as a tween, and it took years to get out from under it. Being objectified and intimidated by one’s classmates is a rotten way to go through school, and I absolutely support any effort to take bullying seriously and put a stop to it.

What I don’t much care for is this Townspeople-of-South-Park level of blind fervor and crippling lack of nuance that drives the dialogue. Or maybe it’s just the Internet I don’t like. No, I see it in real life too. Parents are so riled up against bullying and so vigilantly on the lookout for potential bullies that they do so at the children’s expense. There’s little or no consideration given to age, developmental stages, social skills, or special needs. It’s plain and simple Us vs. Them. And with particularly young children, it’s often in the eye of the beholder.*

Two babies, not even sitting up yet, lie side by side on a rug while their parents take pictures. One baby starts to practice her new rolling-over skills, inadvertently flopping into the baby next to her and poking him in the eye. She continues her attempt at rolling despite the other baby’s wails, only slightly perplexed by this noisy obstacle. It seems like the parents are joking when they start calling the rolling baby a bully. But there’s truth and anxiety behind that joke.

By preschool, it’s not so funny anymore. We’ve been warned by countless headlines, had our hearts broken by tragic suicide stories, been admonished by the news media to be on the lookout, always. (But don’t be a helicopter parent! That’s bad! Make up your mind, media.) And here he comes, a two-year-old on a mission. He snatches a toy out of another child’s hands. He runs up behind a child just as she’s reaching for a book and pushes her flat on the ground. He grabs a boy who accidentally bumped into him and bites him on the back of the head.

By the time they’re four, they run in packs and gather in circles. Friendship is a relatively new thing for them, and the power of belonging and not belonging is fascinating. “This slide is just for girls,” they might say. Or “You can’t be on our team because you don’t like Star Wars.” They might flout every well-meaning preschool rule and turn their fingers into guns (or volcanoes or freeze rays) for imaginary classroom assaults. And, sadly, they might single out a classmate to chase or tease.

How awful to be the parent of that kid who’s getting chased and teased. It awakens something visceral in us, unearths all our childhood baggage and brings every “Beware of Bullies” article we’ve ever read into terrifying focus. I remember consoling a fellow parent in this situation. “They’re just mean!” she said, hopelessly. I knew how she felt.

What I didn’t say was that I knew how the “mean” kids’ parents felt, too. Believe me, the only thing more horrifying than seeing your child become a target is seeing your child become part of the pack that’s doing the targeting. There’s this notion that the bully’s parents are oblivious, proud, perhaps bullies or queen bees themselves. Maybe there’s some truth to that in some cases, but it seems a little too convenient and unfair.

I don’t see myself that way, but I guess I can see how other parents might. I’m probably a touch on the spectrum myself and I tend to miss social cues, talk about myself too much, state an opinion where one clearly isn’t welcome, use bigger vocabulary words than, perhaps, the situation warrants. Or else I just plain keep to myself, which can arouse all kinds of suspicions of “She thinks she’s so great.” I guess I could see how someone might mistake me for a queen bee.

The Boy was four, just coming into full steam with his as-yet-undiagnosed Aspergers and all the sensory-seeking, socially challenged, lack of impulse control that goes with it. Or, you know, being a “bully.” Potato, potahto.

Somehow, that made it okay for a preschool dad to unleash a torrent of verbal abuse on us both on the playground after preschool. I’m sure that guy went home and posted on Facebook about how he totally mama-grizzly’d some bully’s mama on the playground and received all kinds of accolades and support. Meanwhile, I spent the rest of the year feeling isolated, intimidated, and ashamed. But I suppose the average Internet reader would agree that as the alleged queen bee parent of an alleged bully, I deserved it.

Well, folks…life is just a bit more complicated and nuanced than that. There are no heroes, victims, or villains here. Just people. School is an incredibly complex social landscape for anyone. And yet, we somehow expect even the youngest children to navigate it with the idealistic aplomb of liberal arts college sophomores who’ve just been to the rape-awareness fair.

But young children, let’s face it, aren’t quite there yet. Have you ever observed an elementary school recess? The power dynamics shift on a whim, and everyone (yes, even your kid) takes a turn being truly awful to someone else. You know when people use the line “He’s just doing it because he likes you”? I know it reads as a blow-off line, and I understand why people (including this blogger everyone was linking the other day) find it infuriating. But in many cases, especially with very young children or children with special needs, it is absolutely true. Children who struggle with social skills do tend to initiate play or friendship with inappropriate overtures like pushing, touching hair, shouting, and teasing. I see it all the time.

The good news is, young children also have boundless capacity for empathy and learning. And they can learn how to navigate the social landscape if we approach them with empathy, realistic expectations, patience, and forgiveness. We need to leave our baggage at the door and remember that a two-year-old (or a four-year-old or an eight-year-old) is not a future Columbine shooter or the kid who pulled down your pants in 4th grade. Children can and should learn socially acceptable ways to engage. But they don't learn it overnight, and slapping our narrow adult misreadings and baggage on the situation is not helping anyone.

The bit about parents being oblivious or thinking our little snowflakes can do no wrong? That’s just not true. Just because a parent’s first reaction may be defensive; just because a parent has built up a high tolerance for her active, possibly autistic or ADHD child’s antics and chooses her battles carefully so as not to be in a constant state of battling; just because a parent who has to hear every day what jerk her kid is chooses to instead emphasize his strengths…well, you just don’t know the whole story, do you?

And the bit about teachers not caring? Maybe some of them truly don’t, but lots more of them do. But the best teacher is the one who’s got every kid’s best interests in mind, not just the “good” ones or the ones whose parents’ wheels squeak the loudest. The best teacher isn’t going to knee-jerk assume “bully” when something goes awry. The best teacher isn’t going to use shame and ostracism and scapegoating to put the so-called bullies in their place. The best teacher is not going to commiserate with you about what a little shit someone else’s child is. The best teacher is going to help all the children develop the skills to handle the many complex social challenges they face. And as parents, that’s the best thing we can do, too.

Easier said than done, I know. I don’t always get it right even half the time myself. But I’ve read a lot of books and taken a lot of parenting classes over the years. Here are a few whose advice and insights I've used consistently with very positive results:

Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman

Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads by Rosalind Wiseman

Be Different by John Elder Robison

“Social Lives of Our Children” – a lecture by Julie Metzger (Summarized here. I strongly encourage you all to read it.)

*A few weeks ago, I wrote about our dreadful experience at The Boy’s first elementary school and characterized what happened to him there as bullying. What I neglected to mention is that everyone else thought HE was the bully. And they weren’t entirely wrong. Stuff like this is seldom black and white. More on that later.


Trisha said...

This is such a loaded topic. I am absolutely a helicopter mom. I try to look too deeply into every active, loud, potentially violent thing C does and magnify it in my mind, turning it into a future of crime or any other drastic theory. Thank you for reminding me that labeling this behavior and dissecting it too much is what is going to cause problems.

I am sorry to hear about your playground incident. I think anyone with half a brain would realize how friendly and engaging you are, and that you are a wonderful parent.

JPack said...

Thank you so much for this article. I have been so disturbed by the whole "zero tolerance" movement (Kindergartners suspended for kissing on the playground!) and concerned about what seems to be an over reaction to bullying.
You have summed up the issue perfectly. I will share this with colleagues and friends.

Floor Pie said...

"Zero tolerance" has become a handy way for schools to legally discriminate against special ed students. Don't even get me started...

Teacher Tom said...

This is really a spectacular piece, FP. "Bullying" requires intent to hurt, physically or emotionally. What very young children do is experiment.

When my daughter was in preschool, a couple of the other moms read some pop book on teenaged girl bullies and decided my child was destined to be one of them. This was apparently a topic of discussion among the co-op moms. I only learned about it when the teacher took me aside and said that these moms appeared to be bullies themselves.

I've found that this is the easily the most emotionally charged issue in the pantheon of parenting issues. We all have experience in bullying/excluding/etc., and from both sides I might add. My theory is that when we think we see it, especially involving our own child, it releases a toxic emotional cocktail of shame, rage, and helplessness making it very hard to do anything but behave badly.

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