Parenting Perspective: Bullying

Monday, April 16, 2012

Kids will be kids, and it's long been accepted that kids fight, tease and act out with each other. But a new movie, "Bully," looks at the devastating consequences when this crosses the line to bullying.

"Bully" is full of heartbreaking scenes. Among them is the story of Tyler. His parents say he was a smiling, precocious child, but as he got older Tyler got more awkward and withdrawn. His father knew he would not fit in. "I knew he was going to be victimized," he says, his face turning red. Indeed, Tyler was taunted and picked on.

His father says they heard tell that his head had been slammed into a wall of lockers. Finally, they think Tyler, rather than hanging on one more year till graduation, decided to listen to the kids who mockingly asked why he didn't just go hang himself. His mother found him hanging in her home office closet.

The movie is full of pain, and of rage. Repeatedly parents say their calls to prinicipals and counselors were ignored. They didn't know what to do, other than watch their children suffer. And sometimes that rage is directed at themselves. They just didn't know how bad it was.

Alex was born at 26 weeks, a fact borne out by his oddly shaped face. We see kids punch, kick, slap, headlock and threaten him. "Friends are supposed to make you feel good," says his mother over the breakfast table. "That's the point of having them. Your only connection to these kids is they like to pound on you." Alex barely responds, simply, sadly saying "If you say these people aren't my friends, then what friends do I have?"

The movie makes your heart and your head hurt. And if you are a parent it makes you think about what you can do not to see these conversations repeated in your home.

Otis Hackney knows about kids. He left a job as principal of Springfield High School in the Montgomery County suburbs to take over ailing South Philadelphia High School. Bullying at Southern was rampant, with groups of kids even getting into race-based fist fights near school grounds. He says job one for a parent to have a regular conversation with their child about their day. Listen out for "the good, the bad and the ugly," he says. And notice if your child's groups of friends have suddenly disappeared or they seem reluctant to go to school.

Personally I'd be primed to head to the school, confronting the child and his mother on the playground. Hackney strongly cautions against this. Discussion is great if the two parents can do so in a sane, polite way. But emotions and the desire to defend your child can make things get ugly. In fact, pushing the families and, more pointedly, the two kids together prematurely can be damaging, especially for the victim.

Instead, let counselors and the prinicpal do the job of investigating. Armed with evidence and teacher observation, they are in better position to talk to both families and to take steps to shut the bullying down.

And Hackney says a school culture is key to that effort. He says parents should look for and work for schools where all adults, from the lunch room workers to the principal, feel it necessary to be involved and to take action when they see kids being ostracized or mistreated. Bullies need secrecy to thrive, says Hackney, and as they realize adults are on to them, it chills the efforts to bully other children.

Kids often don't like to share their social media accounts, but if you think your child is being hurt, it's worth broaching the delicate subject. Emails, posts and voice mail can become part of your case that the school needs to take action.

Also, look for other activities or groups where your child may thrive. Having multiple groups of friends means it will be less crushing for a kid like Alex to walk away from kids at school who aren't really true friends.

But Hackney is very clear: Don't make your child think he needs a makeover. It is the bully who needs to change. Let your child know your love him as is&if he's being rejected at school, it will mean a great deal to know there is a place where he is expected as he is without change.

And please ignore that advice from your mother, who probably like mine, told you to solve the problem with one good punch. "If you let someone else hit you, then I'm going to hit you too," she said. On one hand, it enforced the idea I was expected to stand up for myself. But this kind of action, especially in a world with so much more violence and firearms, is not advisable. "I'd rather my child coming home running and was not assaulted than stood up for herself and was brutally assaulted."

And what if you hit walls with the school? Keep going, says Hackney. Most local school districts have bullying policies and hotlines. So if the counselor and prinicipal can't help, go to the superintendant. Let the school, and your precious child, know you won't stop until school becomes a place to learn, not to be hurt or scared.

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