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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Communication and the wonderful world of bullies

Being a parent is the hardest job in the world. Especially in today's communication-deficient society. We try to raise our children to get along and adapt to different social interactions, but in a world of 140 characters and internet trolls, how does one communicate effectively?

My son had a rough start in elementary school. He did not know how to communicate his feelings and was often in trouble. Growing up, I remember classmates like him, the pushers and shovers who wanted something and didn't know how to articulate what they wanted. I also remember my teachers scolding them, telling them to apologize and show them the right way to handle the situation. But what is different (with my experience anyway) is that now the "victim" is given a lot more weight in an incident.

When I went to elementary school, I was the kid nobody liked. I was the weird one who made friends with a "fish face" girl and didn't deserve to hang with the cool kids. Yes, cool kids happen as early as second grade. My friend and I had only each other against our entire class, and while they didn't push or shove, they were harsh. Parents worry about bullies in this day and age? It's only worse because the media makes it worse. It wasn't any different then than now, except that you can pick on someone 24 hours a day through the internet instead of only at school. Sure, we told the teacher when we were being teased mercilessly. But the teachers just scolded the tormentors. And told us to ignore them, because the more we pay attention the more they will tease.

It was true. By the time we were in middle school, the teasing grew less, and in fact some of our classmates who were "mean" to us ended up being quite civil. The ostracizing didn't stop, and we were fine with it, because we discovered we could make more friends in other classes. We ignored the "cool kids" and paid attention to the nice ones.

Today, teachers take the two parties involved and have conversations with them about the proper way to communicate with each other, but the "victim" is not told to ignore the actions of others. In fact, they are encouraged to tell on any student who "makes them uncomfortable" because there is a "zero tolerance for bullying." So now we have the makings of a reverse bully.

So, back to my son, he got a pretty bad rap that followed him from kindergarten through third grade. First grade was the worst. He was constantly in trouble and he would come home crying and saying it wasn't his fault. Well, it must have been his fault, right? Why else would the teacher give him a time out? I volunteered in the classroom for the first time one day, a few months into the school year, and it hit me like an obvious cold sore why he was always in trouble. The teacher put him between a passive aggressive and a girl version of him! In the one hour I was there, my son's entire experience was one kid harping "He's doing this!" and "He's doing that!" while the other one is poking him trying to get his attention! I seriously wanted to cry for him. I requested that he be moved immediately.

Unfortunately my son, constantly in trouble, did not trust anyone - especially the adults in the school - to listen to him. He had it in his head that no matter what the situation, when a student told on him, the adult would punish him. So he kept quiet, and when he was so frustrated he would lash out with the pushing and shoving, he would stay quiet as the teacher scolded him, never once asking him what he was feeling, only asking why he did it. And he would stay quiet, because why would they care why he did it? He would be in trouble and it didn't matter that he felt like the one being picked on. How he felt didn't matter, only the "victim's" feelings seemed to matter.

Then, in second grade, the talking started. "He's a trouble maker," and "Don't play with him, he's mean." Any chance he had of making friends was thwarted by the scary predictions of what he would do. And it wasn't just coming from the kids. It also came from the parents. Parents we have never even met or known long enough to form any opinion of them. He stopped getting invited to birthday parties. Friends he did play with at school couldn't invite him for play dates. Friends he wanted to invite to his own birthday never came because the parents simply ignored the invitation. How does he tell a teacher that he's being unfairly targeted? All I can tell him is to ignore them. He doesn't need to listen to anyone who talks badly about him. But above all, he needs to show them how wrong they are through better actions. And he is getting better, but it's hard to be good when everyone expects you to be bad, when some kids try to get you in trouble on purpose. When even adults don't like you, say vicious things about you, and you don't even know them.

Third grade started just as badly. One student that we had a bad experience with ended up in his class. This was someone who had a personality exactly like our son, and who did almost the same things our son did. We knew right away this was going to be a difficult year. We tried to teach our son to ignore him if he did anything that he didn't like, that it was okay to be nice even if you didn't want to play with someone. We said that just like him, this child was going to have a difficult time adjusting, and to just be a good example of how to handle yourself in school. But it didn't work, our son was constantly in trouble with this other student and we finally told the teacher that he could not be in the same group as this other child. There were still incidents, mostly a battle of wills because they were so much alike, and I truly didn't have a problem with it because they both needed to work out their differences. But one day, and you will probably judge me for saying this, my son finally got a little vindication when this child was called into the principal's office for trying to get my son riled up. Unfortunately, my son did get riled up and retaliated with a shove, and so also got called into the office, but it was made clear that the other child's actions were not acceptable. For the first time, an adult in the school stuck up for my son. That was a moment of triumph for all of us.

My son doesn't know how to play "nicely" because he doesn't trust anyone to see that he is trying to play nice. If he pushes for a ball in soccer, or kicks a ball a little hard in kickball, or trips in tag and falls on someone, he's done something wrong and he gets in trouble. It's at the point where he can't even play anything with anybody because he "doesn't get along." I tell him he has friends, and I name every one of them, even the ones whose parents are the mean ones. I tell him his faults, then I tell him his strengths, and then he tells me how he will work on his faults using his strengths. He has bad days, but he has had more good ones this year than years past. And it will only get better. I've been there, so I know, even though he's had a rougher time than I did.

The wonderful world of bullies is a mysterious and ever-changing space, where the ones treated like bullies are sometimes the ones being bullied, and the term "bully" becomes so broad that everyone becomes one and no one is safe. We have become hyper-sensitive to the interactions of others that we forget what is a normal process of social learning. We are teaching our kids to be afraid of social interactions, and that is a dangerous downward spiral.