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Dealing with Bullies: Part II

Like any 9-year-old boy, when Carson was in the 4th grade he loved recess. One particular week he found himself playing a game of tag with some other boys. But not just an open-field race to stay away from whoever was "it." This game of tag had as its venue an elaborate set of playhouses and climbing structures. In other words, this was an especially awesome game of tag!

After a few days in a row enjoying tag, one of the boys, we'll call him Jim, came up to Carson at the beginning of recess and told him he wasn't allowed to play anymore. Apparently, Jim explained, some other player had been sick and absent from school for a few days, and Carson had only been allowed in to fill his place. "But he's back now, so you can't play anymore." And that didn't just mean today. It meant ever.

Of course, the whole decree was silly since there are no player limits in the tag. And who appointed Jim as headmaster of the playhouse anyway? But that didn't matter. He had asserted himself as the leader and had the support of the other kids. Carson Brooks was out.

Carson was of course disappointed. It was a really fun game to miss out on. But more importantly, being excluded hurt his feelings. He wasn't just cut out of the game, but out of the friendship-building time with the other boys.

At home that night, Carson's parents could tell something was wrong. When he shared what happened, mom and dad had an idea. They knew the boy's parents. So two weeks later they arranged for Carson and Jim to have something of a play date at the school football stadium when there wasn't anything else going on. Carson, as instructed, took Jim around the field and showed him all of his favorite places: the best seats, hiding spots, and play areas. Basically, Carson took an interest in Jim and was nice to him.

Then he asked Jim to sit down on a bench and said to him very maturely, "Hey Jim, about that thing that happened a couple of weeks ago at recess, when you said I couldn't play anymore. That really hurt me. It made me feel really bad." Not exactly the conversation Jim expected.

But Jim's response was equally mature, and probably equally surprising to Carson. He said, "Yeah, I've been thinking about that too. I've been feeling guilty about that ever since. I'm really sorry."

And with that, it was over. Carson started playing tag with Jim at recess again. And these boys that had been avoiding each other for days, were now at ease.

His parent's well-planned intervention worked. And Carson executed his part flawlessly. Being nice to Jim and then confronting him was the furthest thing from Carson's mind originally. But he had to admit, it did work. They were never best friends. But they did have a better relationship. And Jim never excluded Carson from any game again.

Now, fast-forward two years, and let's see how Carson handled another experience with bullying. But this one happened 4,000 miles away and involved more than just a game of tag. In his 6th grade year, Carson's family moved to Geneva, Switzerland. It was unlike any environment he'd experienced before. He was used to the conservative atmosphere of his suburban Christian school back home. At this school, the language and topics of conversation among the boys were, let's just say, worldly. And one of the worldlier of his peers was Brandon.

In addition to bad language, Brandon made a habit of slinging insults at the other boys around the locker room. Each of his targets had the pleasure of a tailor-made set of degrading comments constructed just for them. For Carson, one of his favorite barbs included "fat, stupid American." He also enjoyed teasing Carson for his foreign accent. But the worst part was when he included Carson's mother in his slurs.

Again Carson's parents were quick to pick up on his mood and asked what was going on. But unlike the last time, neither mom nor dad had any relationship with Brandon or his parents to arrange a meeting. And Carson had even less stomach for befriending this boy through kindness than he had last time. They needed a different plan. So, here's what they did.

A few weeks later, on a field trip across the border in France, Carson saw his opportunity. The students were exploring a large cornfield. He waited until Brandon was separated just a bit from the other kids. Then he approached Brandon and asked if they could talk for a minute. He then led him off to the side. Perhaps not out of eyesight, but definitely out of earshot. And that's when he delivered his one and only line he'd been practicing with his dad for two weeks.

He looked Brandon straight in the eye, and said calmly, but seriously, "Do we have a problem?"

"What?" was the only response a somewhat off-balance Brandon could manage.

"I said, do we have a problem?" And then Carson briefly reminded him of the locker-room slurs.

Now in full back-peddle, Brandon replied, "Uh… oh, that. No, I do that to everyone. Nothing personal, man." Then after nervously stammering out a few more retractions, Brandon finished with, "I don't have anything against you, Carson. Really. I'm sorry."

Carson said, "Good," with a tone of finality. And then he and Brandon walked back to join the other students.

Brandon never bothered Carson again.

Now, like the last example, this response to bullying seems simple. But also like the last one, it took practice. Carson and his father role-played the entire event several times. Sometimes with dad playing the role of Brandon, and sometimes with Carson. When playing the villain, dad challenged Carson with every potential response. "What? Why do you want to talk to me over there? Do you want to kiss me or something?" After several scenes, Carson was comfortable playing his role.

But let's look at what else these two scenarios have in common, along with the first one from the last lesson. I would argue three key similarities.

First, and most obviously, in all three cases the victim confronted the bully face to face, as opposed to leaving it to get better on its own or relying on adult intervention.

Second, in each case, the victim addressed his tormentor with a statement or a question, not a threat. There wasn't any "if you don't stop being mean to me I'm going to…"

Third, and I think most important, in all three cases the victim got the bully away from his friends to have the conversation. Without any witnesses, the bully has nobody to impress, and no reason to be defensive. The same confrontation, if played out in front of a cohort of friends, could easily backfire.

Now, hopefully, your young person never has to confront this difficulty. But if they do, now you have a few responses to consider. So, when you do, share this story, and then ask these questions:

  1. What were the similarities in Carson's two bullying incidents? What were the differences?

  2. What's the difference between what Carson said and a 'threat'?

  3. How might the result have been different if Carson had said the same things in front of not just the bully, but in front of his friends?

  4. How do you know if a bullying situation is too dangerous to deal with this way, and it might be better to handle it another way? What might you do in that case?

Okay, in the next lesson, we'll talk about whether or not you should tell your friends what other people are saying about them.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith