As parents of a preteen, my husband and I are well acquainted with middle school drama. We’ve seen enough tears shed without cause, inexplicable mood swings, and major meltdowns over minor issues to render us experts of sorts in the fine art of distinguishing a non-issue from a legitimate concern. So when our daughter began sobbing without provocation one evening, we both knew immediately it was the real deal. If you’ve ever attempted to convince an 11 year old girl to have a rational conversation when she’s crying her eyes out, you know the great task we were about to undertake. Finally, after a good deal of convincing on our part, we were able to get to the root of the issue – our daughter, through absolutely no fault of her own, had become the target of a bully.
This girl, no older than ours, had been making our daughter’s school life miserable for months. She would corner her in the bathroom, at the drinking fountain, in the hall, and say the most hurtful things imaginable. Do you want to feel helpless as a parent? Listen to your child describe endless fear and torture and realize that a) you had no clue it was occurring and b) the traits you are most proud to see in your child were causing her pain – her kindness, her intelligence, her willingness to help others. That old adage, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me”? Lies. Although our daughter’s experience was never physical, the damage that girl’s words did to her was every bit as painful. They can hurt. Somewhere along the way we seem to have forgotten that, or, at the very least chosen to downplay the damage a few sharp words can do.
It is an unfortunate trend in our society, the tendency to say anything to anyone, regardless of how inappropriate or hurtful it may be. We only need to turn on the television or browse the daily news to find multiple examples of hateful speech. Bullies are everywhere, whether we choose to identify them as such or not. With the rise of social media, there is even greater opportunity for such talk to occur. Rather than a means to keep us connected, these social sharing sites have become a platform for virtual, consequence free bullying to occur (because, let’s be honest, there are worse things than becoming someone’s “unfriend”). And our children? They see it all.
I have been pleased with the effort being channeled into the anti-bullying movement over the past few years. Our kids have had all school assemblies on the topic. They have heard from former students who were bullied and former bullies who have grown to regret their choices. They bring home pamphlets and posters on prevention, and are provided direction on the steps to take should bullying occur. However, despite these efforts, as our experience shows, it remains a problem. Why? I suspect it has something to do with the fact that we as a society are modeling the very behavior that we are trying so hard to eradicate.
As parents, we need to take responsibility for educating our children. We must teach them that, while it’s perfectly acceptable not to be friends with everyone, it is completely unacceptable to disrespect others in any way. We need to watch our own words, to think before we speak, especially in front of our kids. And, perhaps most important of all, we need to remind our children (and ourselves!) what a wise little rabbit once said – “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”