Of all the reports a parent can hear from their child about how things are going at school, few will make them angrier than finding out their child is being bullied. And any parent whose child has been in that situation struggles with how to advise their kid on how to respond. Do you give the age-old wisdom that "if you stand up to a bully, they'll always back down"? Or is that ill-advised in today's more violent climate?
Maybe you should just tell them to go tell a teacher each time and risk the playground ridicule of being branded a tattletale.
Fortunately, after a decade of effort, most schools have significantly reduced the most overt and offensive bullying behavior. In many places, the days are gone of the schoolyard thug extorting milk money, homework papers, or test answers from the smaller kids. What's still prevalent, and probably always will be, is the unkind taunts, teases, name-calling, and harassment that are harder to identify and police. How is a child to respond to that kind of mistreatment?
The best response, of course, depends on a number of factors. But let's look at how two kids responded to a tormentor on two continents and see if we can find some wisdom. We'll start with me.
Despite being a talkative know-it-all with a sarcastic sense of humor, I somehow made it all the way to the 5th grade without having what I would consider a real "enemy." But that's where my luck ran out. I had somehow become the target of ridicule of the class clown – John. For weeks, he made me the butt of his jokes. If it had stopped there, that might have been tolerable. But his jokes spread to name-calling, taunts, and teases. And since the other students admired his sharp wit, they started picking on me, too.
My life had become a 5th-grade version of a living hell.
Well, One night, I went to my father for advice. For some reason, I chose the one night a week when his drinking buddies were at our house for a visit. Ironically, that turned out to be a good choice.
The men listened to my dad give me the mature and reasonable advice to have a respectful talk with John, telling him how his comments made me feel, and asking him to please stop. Well, after patiently suffering this apparent affront to masculinity, my father's best friend at the time, Jerry, interjected with this advice. "No, no, no. This is what you need to do, kid. You get to school tomorrow morning extra early. You wait outside the school in the parking lot and wait for this "John" to get dropped off. Once he's away from his mom and not yet buddied up with his friends, you walk right up to him, you get in his face, and you say this: "John, you and I are either going to be friends, or we're going to be enemies. And you need to decide which it's going to be, right now."
"Well, okay, Then what do I do?"
"Nothing. That's all you have to do."
"But what if he says he wants to be enemies? Or what if he wants to know what I'm going to do about it?"
"He won't," "But if he does, all you have to say is, "I just need to know where we stand, John. Are we friends? Or are we enemies?" Then no matter what his answer is, say "Ok" and walk away."
It sounded too easy. But all the men, including my Dad, seemed to think it was a good solution.
So the next morning, that's exactly what I did. I waited to get John alone in the parking lot and executed my lines with the precision and seriousness of a military officer. John's reaction surprised me as much as my parking lot ambush probably surprised him. Despite him being a few inches taller and several pounds heavier, he took a step backward. His eyes widened. And he stammered out a set of words less meaningful than the tone of voice he used to stammer them. Each of his two or three disjointed sentences contained the word "friends." But his tone was a combination of shock, fear, and shame.
Well, our business being concluded, we walked into the school together.
John never spoke an ill word of me again.
And In the years since, and having two boys of my own now, I've tried to identify what it was about this response to a bully that made it work. But it wasn't until I came across two other successful examples that I saw it. In the next lesson, I'll share those experiences. Until then, if you're sharing this with your child, here are some questions to ask so far:
Have you ever had someone pick on you at school?
What did you do about it? And did that solve the problem?
Why do you think asking John if we were friends or enemies worked?
Do you think it was important that the conversation happened away from his other friends? Why or why not?
What would have been another way to handle the situation?
Okay, in the next lesson, we'll pick up where we left off with another boy getting bullied and the very different strategy he used to deal with it.