Early 1970s: A newly married bride receives an unexpected letter. It is from a college friend whom everyone had called "flat-chested", a "boy" and other names because she was "too lean to be a girl." The bride had also laughed, and never tried to stop anyone. The letter told her that. And the letter said how much she had valued the bride as a friend, but was deeply hurt since she never stood up for her. The letter still haunts her.
Late 1980s: A girl is "playfully" taunted for having huge, manly hands, and made to feel like an outcast -- mostly by kids of her own gender. She still tries to hide her hands in the folds of her dress. She is nearing 40 now.
2013: "Oh! You know how it is! They are stepping into their teens. They tend to get a bit violent sometimes." Those are the words of a teacher who had been approached by the parent of a preteen. The boy had been severely beaten up by two boys for tattling on them.
These are not made up stories, but real incidents from my life. We have, for long, attributed issues like bullying to the West, when in fact, it has always been very real here as well. We refer to it as "toughening", a "learning experience", an outcome of raging hormones. It's ridiculous. We also tend to reinforce it by ignoring it, or worse, lashing out at the child enduring it - "Be tough, it's all part of growing up."
Here's the thing: Being called names is definitely not a part of growing up, toughening up, or any other such delusional developmental milestone. It is just one thing -- bullying. And it is on the rise. Time and again I have been given a checklist of what bullying is not. Interestingly, over the years, it seems everything has figured on the list. So, basically, according to a lot of children, teachers, parents, nothing is bullying -- things just happen and they can't be classified under such a horrific term. Let me outline exactly why strongly disagree.
MYTHS ABOUT BULLYING
1. Calling someone chubby, or dark or "chashmish" is not bullying. Children do it all the time.
Just because children do it all the time, doesn't give it legitimacy. Name-calling or any other form of verbal abuse is rarely considered serious, but I urge you to fish out statistics. You'd be shocked to see the rising number of children who internalize the tirades, try to kill themselves -- sadly, a lot of times, they succeed.
2. A slap here or there shouldn't be taken seriously.
Yes, children fight, slap and kick, and then one day the fight gets nasty. If the child is lucky enough to escape, he has learnt a faulty lesson - "It is okay to be oppressed; a good way of dealing with conflict/insecurity is beating the other person to pulp." And if he isn't lucky, then he gets to be a statistic.
Only one in three kids is known to tell an adult, and the older they get, the more averse they become to going to their parents.
3. Teachers never bully/aid bullying.
This one is another sad myth. The other day at the school open house, I was told that one of my boys asked too many questions and it was not good, since "other kids make fun of him. You know how important it is for them to fit in." I sat there blinking for a while and then I exploded, as politely as I could. And of course, we all have heard of teachers ridiculing children, all in the name of humour, friendliness, and generally trying to be a part of the "in-group."
4. Girls do not bully.
Girls are as capable of bullying as boys and get as nasty. I have a friend whose daughter is taunted for her weight and her constant immersion in books.
5. Bullying is another name for a fight and boy, do kids fight!
Wrong again. In a fight there is some amount of conflict whereas in a bullying scenario, the bullied child is hardly able to defend himself, and repeatedly suffers at the hand of his or her tormentors.
6. Bullying? That's just a fancy made-up name for kids being kids.
Bullying has far more serious implications than just "kids trying to be kids." From behavioural problems, academic disturbances, to depression and even suicide -- all outcomes have been seen, researched and neatly tabulated.
7. Bullying toughens the kids up.
No, it weakens the child and in no way helps him to become tough. For that there is love, support, and the child's character strengths.
8. Had it been so serious, my child would have told me. It is no big deal, they can handle it.
Only one in three kids is known to tell an adult, and the older they get, the more averse they become to going to their parents. They fear they won't be taken seriously, or worse, that the parent might create a scene at school, and make the child an even bigger subject of ridicule.
9. Whatever limited bullying there is, it is confined to school.
On the contrary, it is everywhere -- the school, the playground, the evening park, the school bus, cyberspace. Bullies are found everywhere, and they find victims everywhere.
10. My child needs to fight back the bully. Only then will he/she stop.
If your child fights back in the same way he was treated, then he is doing exactly what he had been the victim of. Bullying needs to be dealt with more comprehensively, and retaliation never solves anything.
11. Bullying is more of a senior school issue.
Surprisingly it is most rampant in middle school. Classes ranging from 6-8 report the highest number of bullying cases.
WHAT DOES A BULLY DO?
Is it just hitting? Or does it include public name-calling? What about the secret messages being passed around the class? How do we help children spot bullies, and know if they are being targeted? Well, in short, a bully is a person who:
1. Repeatedly hurts the child -- emotionally or physically.
2. Deliberately makes the child feel uncomfortable, unwanted or inferior in any way.
3. Spreads nasty rumours about the child. This could be offline, online or both.
4. Engages in name-calling.
5. Sends threatening/abusive messages or mails.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
So by now, we hopefully agree that bullying is rampant and it happens to almost everybody. Your child might have gone through it as well. But we are not helpless. This is what we can do:
No matter how dull it might be, listen to the detailed account of the day. Don't stop at listening -- ask questions and be interested. Get excited at that extra run he took. If you seem disinterested in the day-to-day conversations, you cannot expect them to come to you when something serious happens.
If you seem disinterested in the day-to-day conversations, you cannot expect them to come to you when something serious happens.
2. Don't over-emphasize appearance
Most of us spend a good amount of time dressing our toddlers up, and then suddenly when they are in their teens and overly bothered about their looks/attire, we blame it on hormones. Teach them to dress up well but not fuss over the colour of the frame, or the brand of the shoes. Yes, in the commercial, advertisement-driven world it is tough to do that, but children need to be taught to be free of these shackles. A child who is overly concerned about her looks is more likely to be targeted. On the other hand, when she is comfortable in her skin, people usually leave her alone.
3. Never take even a seemingly minor incident lightly
Report to the school and then follow it up. Do not let the school play it down or make you look like a paranoid parent. You are very well within your rights to protest and get yourself heard. Dealing with bullying has to be a collaborative effort, and parents cannot be held solely responsible.
4. Urge the school to hold classes/workshops to address the issue
A lot of times, children are not aware about what comprises bullying, when the joke stops being funny, and when they overstep boundaries. If the school doesn't, we as parents need to tell them that.
I was surprised the other day when I found the boys giggling at a joke that the younger one shared -- apparently they had nicknamed a boy Jumbo since he was obese. "That's bullying," I said. Both of them said, in unison, "No! It isn't!" One added, "Besides, he himself laughs it off."
That was the time I sat them down and explained it to them. A lot of times, children laugh off the nicknames given to them to avoid further victimization or isolation. That doesn't mean they like the "joke". Ideally, the school should also be holding sessions with the kids but then again, we can't just shake our heads at their lack of involvement and turn away from our responsibility.
5. Accept the fact that it could swing either way
Recognize the signs. My child is as capable of being a bully as he is of being bullied. They need to be shown both sides of the coin and made aware of the consequences. Never assume that your angel-faced baby is not capable of hurting even a fly -- trust me, he can accomplish much more.
Never assume that your angel-faced baby is not capable of hurting even a fly -- trust me, he can accomplish much more.
If you see unexplained injuries, sleep and eating disturbances, torn/damaged school supplies, dropping grades-- raise a red flag; your child might be a victim.
On the other hand, if the child is being increasingly aggressive, ends up with unexplained new things/toys/money, blames others for everything, worries excessively about his social position in the class, gets overly competitive, you might want to make sure he/she isn't bullying anyone.
6. Arm them
No not with semi-automatics -- with oodles of confidence. A child who feels good about himself, and has a positive self-esteem, is less likely to be adversely affected by bullying. When I constantly tell my child what he is lacking, I am making his self-esteem shrink with every negative word. On the other hand, making him see what he is good at bolsters his confidence. That obviously doesn't imply that we ought to instil an exaggerated sense of self -- just that we stick to positive criticism, and hold discussions rather than monologues.
Also, encouraging a child to find something that interests him helps him discover his likes and talents, helps him become more confident and assertive and less susceptible to being victimized.
7. Never blame them
"So what did you do to annoy that child?"
"You must have done something that made them mad enough to hit you.'
Throw such statements out of the parenting book. Always remember, it must've taken him immense courage to walk up to you and tell you. Now is not the time to tell him where he went wrong, or what he should have done. Now is the time to let him know that you are taking it very seriously, and that bullying is strictly unacceptable. Let him know that you are with him.
8. Urge them to help others who get bullied
A bystander indirectly aids the bully. This doesn't imply that the child should be taught to jump in a brawl. Encourage the child to be sympathetic to the victim: be friends with him, sit with him and ask him to report the incident to a teacher/parent/coordinator/principal -- whoever listens. The idea is to not give up till someone pays attention.
8. Be aware that cyber-bullying is a reality
Take one look at the various confessions pages of different schools on social networking sites and you'll know. The news is full of children who suffer unspeakable cyber-bullying. Young children have no need to be online. For the older kids, be vigilant of their internet usage, and install parental checks and filters.
Never assume that children are always resilient. Sometimes they need help in dealing with the pain, shame and agony of being bullied...
9. If needed, get professional help
Never assume that children are always resilient. Sometimes they need help in dealing with the pain, shame and agony of being bullied, and going through hell at school. Be vigilant. If there are noticeable behavioural changes, or persistent reluctance to go to school after the incident that he reported, get help.
PRACTICAL ADVICE TO GIVE YOUR KIDS
That's all good, you may think, but what do I tell my child? A preschooler, after all, probably doesn't understand phrases like "be comfortable in your skin."
A child can be given the following advice in simple, short and easy to understand and remember sentences.
1. Calmly but firmly tell the bully to stop. Hold your hand out and ask them to stop. If they are making fun of you, turn the joke around. Sometimes a firm protest is all it takes to discourage them.
2. Walk away. Get away from the situation and seek help from an adult. Go to a crowded area.
3. Don't panic . Do not show that you are affected. The bully looks for signs that you are upset because that gives them the satisfaction of having some power over you.
4. Seek help from a teacher, a friend or a parent. Talk to them. Make them listen. Calmly report the incident so that you are seriously heard.
5. Speak to other kids. Two or three kids are tougher to pick on when they are together. So speak out about the bully, band up and stay together.
6. Don't carry unnecessary stuff to school. Gadgets, money, fancy stuff often attracts bullies. Don't carry things you do not need to school.
All through my academic years, I pored over statistics -- reported cases of suicide, depression, anxiety disorders... But it is only now, as a parent of two preteen boys that these numbers look more sinister and real. This is supposed to the best part of their lives. I, as a parent, cannot let them be humiliated, degraded or feel worthless all in the name of it being a "part of growing up."
The bully is as much a child as the victim. It is time to help them both.
Bullying is monstrous and often disguises itself well in the form of "harmless aggression." No child deserves to be bullied or, worse, be a bully. Enough fingers have been pointed at the parenting styles, value education in today's society, and lack of discipline in elite schools. It is time to calm down and take a long hard look around. We are all to blame. It is time to get our act together and address this collectively. It is time to stop vilifying the bully's parents too. The bully is as much a child as the victim. It is time to help them both.
Originally posted at Random Thoughts
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