We all grow up, eventually. If facebook has taught me one thing, it’s that the people we grow up around will all end up being ok with one another once we get over our hormones. The petty squabbles that you have with friends will fall away. The crushes, well, you’ll look back and wonder (in many cases) what you were thinking. If you’re like me, however, it’s a new journey in a) forgiving, b)letting go of old hurt, and c)trying to get out of old habits. I tend to worry a lot, I am always wondering if people think I’m…well, insert deepest fears here. I was one of those bullied kids, though I wonder if a lot of my peers from those days might not have thought so.
But let’s be honest: even as a child, I knew that the tormentors were acting out of their own pain. I could see it. Oh, sure, some of them were riding a bandwagon, or trying to get accepted by being nasty. Oh, and lest I forget, there was a culture of bullying that, to me, was fully supported by the teachers and administration in our city.
I’ve written about this before, but in light of recent events, I want to just lay out a couple of things for everyone who has kids now, especially for those who never experienced being treated the way that I was treated (and so many others who were as well).
You have to have some understanding of your child’s school, other than going for open houses and conferences. I make it a point to drop in whenever I have a concern, but in the town where we live, my fears are a lot less than they would have been where I grew up. From about day one of middle school, life started its downhill slide for me. I was in that stage of life during the rise of slam books, I was a gawky, shy kid with glasses and size 9 feet, a late bloomer for puberty. My parents were not really involved with school except for my dad to utilize his network of “spies” – to wit, his parishioners who worked at that school – so al he knew was whether I was “behaving” or not. He and my mom had no clue what was really starting to go on. And I was terrified to tell them. No, I don’t remember why. I just know that I felt like I couldn’t. Some of the teachers loved to openly mock the students who were not meeting expectations, something that had started for me back in grade school. Maybe they thought it would embarrass me into doing my homework – but that wasn’t going to help, I was classic ADD in a day before anyone understood it – but I think it pissed them off that I would score high on mastery tests and not be able to produce in class what they wanted. They also turned a blind eye to kids going after one another. In one case, a class I was in turned on a substitute teacher, and had her in tears. I was even egged one day, walking home from school, and when I finally got myself in front of the principal to lodge a complaint, he essentially told me that he felt it was my own fault.
Teach your child compassion, no matter what. Even through the worst of what was happening to me, I knew, as I said, that my abusers were in pain themselves. It’s hard to sell that to a kid who is getting threatened and broken down, but it’s crucial. It allowed me to forgive (even if I don’t forget). And it apparently comes through to the kids who are bullying. Some of my worst “enemies” in middle school found themselves in big trouble when a cheating ring was discovered. They’d picked the biggest dragon lady of a teacher in whose class to do it, too. I remember seeing them all lined up outside her room, one could almost hear a bell tolling, and one of the kids approached me. He had been pretty awful to me, even getting his younger sibling to mock me in the halls. He looked ill at that moment, though, and asked me what I thought he should do. I got that sick feeling, wondering why he was asking me of all people, but I told him to tell the truth. It couldn’t get any worse, and confessing might begin the getting better. Not that I was able to do it all the time, but I really thought it was the only option for his situation. I was telling him this, knowing that his father was probably more terrifiying to him than the teacher. For all I know, he got a beating for what he’d done. We understood each other in that moment, and I stopped hating him. I think I stopped hating anyone at that point, and decided to figure out a new way for myself to live. Not long after that, I think, was when I decided to take advantage of a program that allowed me to go to high school in a different town. I’m not sure what has happened to some of the kids who were so unhappy and so mean, but thanks to social media, I have “friended” a few of my middle school classmates and found that, indeed, we all grow up – not only that, that they thought differently of me than I might have imagined.
Teach moral courage. Another not so easy sell, because this one means standing up and making noise when we see something that’s not right. I was friends with every type of person through all my school years. It never mattered to me whether someone had a “disability” or was different – I looked for good-hearted, funny people to be around. After a while, it became obvious that I had to speak up and tell someone to shut it when they were being cruel. But that was only after I felt empowered to do so. A big part of that came from my high school principal, an amazing man who told me that I was allowed to feel safe at school. He was serious about it, and knew that I was a good kid who needed an ally. He gave me my life back at that moment. I would really beg of school administrations to decide to be bulldogs for their kids, and tell those kids that they are allowed to feel safe. It was my first time feeling like anyone had my back, and I cannot express enough how much things changed for me after that. When I started as a freshman, I was in basic level classes, getting by with C’s, still picked on, unhappy, alone. By the time I graduated, I was in honors and AP classes, making honor roll, captain of the track team, maybe not belle of the ball, but much happier (stupid hormones and teenage angst aside!).
Be honest with your kids. If you were bullied, you’ll probably share that. I say lay it all out, even the stuff that is embarrassing to you still. I will tell my kids that I got egged, had pennies and gum thrown at me, the names that I was called, that one girl told me she would kill me…and I’ll talk about how I handled it (not well at times – I did try to run away, after all). But if you were one of the mean kids, yeah, maybe that’s not so easyto confess. But you should. If you feel bad about how you acted at that age, say so. And say why you think you acted like that. You don’t really want your kids repeating that behavior, I know you don’t. here’s obviously more of a zero tolerance policy, and more of a huge reactionary mentality after these situations have spiraled into tragedy, but don’t wait. Sit down now with your kids and talk. “Do you get picked on?” and “Are you ever mean to other kids?” It’s as good a place to start as any. I try to stress to my younger son (our older one is autistic, and we deal with that differently) that kids are sometimes going to be mean and angry. They’re going to say things because they hurt inside (like his one friend who kept saying mean things to him – this boy’s dad had lost his job, and they had just bought a house – you do the math), or they’re scared, or they’re just doing what other kids do to try and be liked more. Not everybody will like you. That’s ok. It’s more important to like yourself, because that shines through, and people are attracted to that.
I admit that I still have trouble socially – but my family was more about making fun of one another than teaching how to laugh at ourselves – at looking for someone to blame and pointing out others’ mistakes, rather than taking the blame and admitting that we’d screwed up. Teach your kids how to laugh at themselves. I can’t stress that enough. I wish I was more able to do that. I’m still learning that skill at 35. Let your kids screw up, and then talk to them about what might be learned, and how to avoid it next time. We’re too much in the way these days as parents, as far as mistakes go. We’re there to catch them before they fall, but not to teach the lesson that might have been learned. Our younger son was roughhousing with my husband, and knocked his little noggin into daddy’s eye socket not that long ago. It resulted in a black eye for my husband (who had to put up with all sorts of cracks from his coworkers), but also in several lessons for both of them. For our little guy, he learned that we can unintentionally hurt people we love, that his head is as hard as granite, and that it’s ok to get ribbed about beating up daddy. My husband learned that people think he secretly goes off to do UFC fights. And that he’s not as thick-skinned as he wants to be.
The biggest thing to repeat is the refrain I keep hearing now, “It gets better.” It does. It really does. Life is so much broader than middle or high school. You might have to put your head down and bulldoze to get through some of it, especially if you want to get out and be any kind of success, but someday, after the caps have been tossed in the air, we all walk out into the real world. And your time will come where you will have kids, or maybe you’ll be a mentor to a child in your life, and you must try to be honest, have courage, and teach a child the same. We can survive, we have made it through the terror tunnel of teenage years for eons. Believe me: I lived through it, and so can you.