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Stop blaming bullies and start building self-respect

May 25, 2011 - Betsy Bethel
As much as I hate bullying, I think attempting to rid the world of it is as futile as trying to eradicate terrorism. Both will go on as long as humans are broken, imperfect people motivated by selfish desires.

I believe every child is a bully victim at some point in their lives. The schoolyard and cyberspace are not the only proving grounds: Some children are bullied at home where they are supposed to feel safe, by parents who are supposed to protect them, or by siblings in the name of supposedly innocuous "sibling rivalry."

I also think every child acts like a bully at some point. I have witnessed my own preschooler show empathy and compassion for other children on numerous occasions and then, while playing with a friend on a local playground, shun a little girl who tried to join in. She and her friend didn't say mean things to the girl, whom they didn't know; nor did they whisper and giggle. It's just that Emma and her friend don't often have many play dates together, and they didn't want to play with anyone else. I understood, but I still called Emma over and told her to please be nice to the younger girl and let her play. And, to my relief, she did.

By today's bully-sensitive public, would a child who doesn't want to play with another kid be considered a bully? Sometimes I think we are getting carried away with our labels. Bullying is perpetrated by a person wielding power over someone who is perceived to be weaker in some way. We know it happens every day. You can't fire up your iPhone or pick up a newspaper without hearing "new" statistics on the prevalence of it. There's another teen suicide blamed on bullies every week, it seems.

Bullying has been going on since Cain smote Abel. It's not new and it's not going anywhere. Of course, all parents worry our children may be victims or perpetrators of the b-word. I don't in any way condone the behavior, but I also believe we all — parents, teachers, media, Joe and Jill Public — need not to give into fear tactics fueled by the media and to instead use common sense and rational repsponses in dealing with it. I'm not saying I have the answers, and I'm not trying to oversimplify the complex social phenomenon. Just hear me out.

The first thing we need to do is keep our own anger in check, which is very difficult for Mama and Papa Bear, I understand. It's OK to feel angry; it's not OK to cuss out the bully's parents or take a ball bat to their minivan.

When our children are small, we need to teach them to respect others. How do we teach them? By being respectful of others and them. Don't gossip about or belittle strangers, let alone family members, neighbors, teachers, coaches, your children's friends or their parents. Use a little diplomacy and restraint. If a mean thought pops into your head, that doesn't mean it has to escape your mouth.

Teaching your child to be respectful means when your child wants something he can't have, don't give in to his whining or his tantrums. Otherwise you'll be teaching him that he will get what he wants if he badgers and disrespects people. If he is allowed to act disrespectful of you, he will no doubt try out this behavior on others when he doesn't get his way.

Empathize with her when she is upset — this is a toughy. Whether it's because she can't have the doll she wants or because she doesn't want to eat her peas or because she hurt her leg while doing something you told her not to do, don't berate her. Of course, don't tell her her behavior is OK, either. But tell her calmly that you understand how she feels and you're sorry she's upset. Ever since Emma was 2, when I've remembered to do this instead of telling her she's being "ridiculous" or flipping my lid, I'm amazed at the results. It defuses her temper almost immediately. She still doesn't get what she wants, but she calms down when she realizes I still care about her and I'm not plotting to make her life miserable.

The Golden Rule is still golden: Do unto others as you would have done to yourself. It works, ironically, because it is underpinned by selfish motivation. When employing this rule, we are putting ourselves first and listening to our selfish desires, and that's OK — because it then motivates us to do the right thing. In the playground case, I told my daughter to imagine what it would feel like to be that little girl who wanted to play with her. I encouraged her to assess her own feelings, and then transfer them to the girl and take action accordingly. It all goes back to empathy. When taught at a young age to think this way, your children develop a habit of empathy they will carry with them throughout their lives. You've never met an empathetic bully, have you?

Bullies, nonetheless, will never stop rearing their ugly heads. They're on college campuses, in the workplace, on the highway, in the grocery store, on the playing field, in the bleachers. Now is the time to teach your kids how to be assertive and shut bullies down ... not necessarily by physically fighting or by giving them a dose of their own medicine, but by rising above it. Give them scenarios and ask how they would react — this works with preschoolers all the way up to high-schoolers. Guide them toward honest, respectful responses. Teach them it's OK not to engage a bully — they shouldn't consider themselves weak if they do; but, they also have the right (and maybe even the responsibility?) to tell the bully how they feel. Dealing with bullies should be considered a life skill we teach our kids, just as we teach them to cook a meal or drive a car. More practically, encourage them to find an ally at school or on the team whom they can turn to with their fears and feelings if you're not around — whether it's an another adult or a peer. Nothing is more both empowering and soothing to a hurting soul than the support of a (dare I say empathetic?) friend.

Finally, tell your children they should never be made to feel ashamed. (And don't shame them yourselves!) Bullies wield shame as a weapon, and your child's best defense is knowing he or she is a worthwhile, beautiful person who is loved by many — no matter what. The victims and suicides will decrease when our children begin to build arsenals of self-respect and when they are trained to cope in healthy ways when attacked.

Bullies, in whatever form, will never surrender ... they will never be eliminated. But we as a society can't allow them to win.


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