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“Bullying is a vital part of every ecosystem, it teaches kids resilience. The world is a rough place, bullying is like getting inoculated…How do you think Steve Jobs turned out so great? Bullies…Do you want your kid to peak now? My kid will be picking up roadside garbage in an orange jumpsuit in ten years. Your kid will be in med school, curing cancer and getting laid.” Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy) in Shameless
In a conversation with another mother of a kindergartener recently, she related to me a story in which her child was hit and verbally threatened by a classmate, because the other child was jealous of the boots that her daughter was wearing. And while I’m not going to further discuss the details of the incident in order to preserve this family’s anonymity, it seemed pretty clear her daughter was a victim of a level of hostility and unkindness that would warrant some further action by the school, even if neither her child nor the agitator are aware of what “bullying” is. And it got me to thinking…
Raising daughters, I frequently reflect on my own experiences growing up in trying to formulate the advice and guidance I want to pass on to them. Bullying is such a hot and cold topic in our society, and I have to say, I’m not totally sure how broad the definition of “bullying” is in the school system my kids are in, or even in the world in general. And I’m not talking about the obvious instances, which we see frequently played out in the media via tragic retrospectives or lawsuits. Those truly awful and obvious (to most) scenarios, where the Powerful vs. the Powerless rarely ends in any kind of satisfactory resolution, and is way beyond the scope of what I’m pondering. We’ll save that level of social injustice for another time.
So what I’m asking is, where is the line? Yes, of course I was picked on as a child, but not nearly with the viciousness of the kid who smelled like pee in grammar school or the really “dumb” kid in middle school or the complete social outcast in high school. And I was never the kid who initiated words or actions of cruelty towards any of the above. But I was also never the kid who had the social status to stand in front of those kids and say “Stop!”
I had the typical (I hope) awful moments as a kid; liking a boy who openly mocked me at the 7th grade dance in front of all of my friends; my first day at a new school, I dropped all of my books as I tripped up the stairs between classes. (In my John Waters fantasy memory, there was an upperclassman in his varsity jacket with a charming smile that stopped to help me pick up my mess. But in reality, I’m sure everyone just passed by and laughed) In college, I got into a verbal altercation with the friends of my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend…and I pretty much backed out of the room and ran as soon as I could. Was any of that bullying? I didn’t think so at the time and I still don’t think so; I felt then, as I feel now, that it was just part of the painfulness of growing up. And did I ever exhibit “mean girl” behavior? I’m sure I did. I’m not proud to admit that, but I can say with confidence that I’ve matured into an adult who is more kind than cruel, and I do hope any kind of ‘assholery’ I exhibited as a kid or young adult was never memorable enough to make anyone cringe at the memory.
So we know that kids don’t have much of a filter; they lack the maturity and wherewithal to always make good decisions and to never let their waxing and waning self-esteem push words or actions that are unkind unto others. So how can we be sure we raise children who tend to make better decisions, who aren’t given to moments of being unkind, or worse, downright mean? Conversely, how do we teach our children to be resilient, to shrug off cruelty and realize they can, and will, rise above?
I don’t know the answers. I just know I’m trying my best to balance my advice to my children between Always Be Kind and Don’t Take Crap From Anyone. As with most parents, I don’t know how effective I am or if I’m even doing the right thing. I’m just crossing my fingers and hoping they pick up on the important stuff.
If you have any thoughts about how to raise kind children, I’m all ears. Also, if you have had any experiences with bullying, either yourself or your children, please feel free to weigh in with your stories.