This is a blog post about a boy being bullied for liking a cartoon and it’s characters, bullied to point he attempted suicide. Even as we pray for him and his family and we watch for his story to unfold, I want to talk about talking about bullying.
Reading this story about a boy too young to be so terrorized and pushed to a suicide attempt I realize it’s worth the time to encourage our commitment to the discussion of bullies and how we are to “be.” I’m going to say bullies and “be’s” because it’s more than just telling our kids not to be a bully, but it’s also about teaching our kids to support one another, to show compassion and be aware of the other children around them. This is a parental issue. We need to own it. We need to own the story of Michael’s suicide attempt and be taught by his story. We need to pray for him and his family. We need to open our eyes to how we as adults, and especially as parents, model life for the children in our radius of influence.
You caught the allusion to the infamous talk about “The Birds and The Bees” as we have come to call the time when a parent tries to impart our knowledge and wisdom to our child about human sexuality. Talking about sexuality is difficult, but we do it because our kids need to learn from people in whom they can place trust and who are looking out for their best interests. The talk about bullies and becoming the right kind of person is just as important. We hopefully talk about sexuality with our kids before they hurt themselves, before they are victimized or grow into victimizers. The same idea goes for the talk about bullies… it’s not just a talk for the kid who’s being a bully, but for all kids. Every needless death and suicide attempt is a reminder that too many of us as parents aren’t addressing the problem before the victimization begins and remains unchecked. You can search around for yourself, but suicide is third leading cause of death for young people and bullying often has a strong link to suicide attempts.
You Are Not To Be A Bully, Ever.
Start here with your child. It’s not a complicated lesson to impart. We tell our children that they are not to make fun of other kids. We teach them to empathize, to imagine how it hurts to be ridiculed and “left out” at school. Bullying happens on the playground, on Facebook, on MySpace, Twitter and every social media platform that has been invented. We tell our children that they do not speak rudely of or to other kids or even adults, for any reason.
We have to tell our kids that they may not ever hit, kick, push, shove or physically embarrass another child. They may not threaten or intimidate another child. It’s a clear message that can be easily shared with a child, “You may not.” We deliver this message again and again and again. It’s one of parental mantras that we repeat until they’re sick of hearing it and will never forget it. “You are not a bully.”
If a child has been a bully, then they stop and they bully no more. I’m not looking to vilify and hurt kids who hurt other kids. We impart these kinds of lessons because kids often don’t realize the impact of their words and actions. I have heard it many times, and said it myself, “Kids can be cruel.” But that’s a bit of an evasion to be honest. The truth is most often more like, “Kids can be immature and unaware.” The vast majority of kids wouldn’t set out to so emotionally and psychologically hurt another being that the victim is driven to a suicide attempt. We as parents know it can happen, and that’s why the burden of teaching falls to us.
The harder part of the lesson is modeling these things for our children. They have to see us treating people and speaking of people with respect and dignity. They need to hear us speak in ways that show dignity and respect for others, especially those not like us and with whom we disagree. If we continually rail against people and angrily denounce others for their viewpoints, life-styles or for their physical attributes, our children will mirror our behavior at school and in their social circles.
Parents, we influence our child when we speak of “the gays” with fear, anger or negativity. We influence our children’s behavior and speech when we verbalize fear or anger at “the Jews,” or when we give an angry tirade against “those Christians.” We do no one a favor, especially our children, when we speak with disgust or anger of “the Muslims, the Right Wingers, the Liberals, the Illegals, the Mexicans, the blah blah, <insert people not like me here>.”
When we model a lifestyle of dividing the people around us into who gets our respect and who doesn’t, our children learn to make the same determinations in their circles and act on them. And let’s be honest, we’re talking about the words we use and the actions we take, but also about the media which we allow into our homes. Media and shows which engender fear, division, hatred or anger should have no place among our families. We can get our news, regardless of our political and social leanings, without subjecting our children to thinly veiled bigotry and divisiveness.
Does this mean we lose our ability to teach our values and beliefs to our children? Of course not. It does mean that we include the values of respect and personal dignity, of civility and responsibility. You may not like the politics and social stances of Republicans, but you can teach your children your political values while teaching them to be respectful of others. The same goes for every issue from immigration to sexual orientation to economics.
You Are to Be Kind.
Again, the simplicity and clarity of this message is difficult for a child to miss. This is the positive side of the negative message to “be not.” Our message to our kids is not complete if it rests in the “be not” realm, but it has to move into the world of being something. Our message is this:
1) Kindness is strength, it is power and it is truth. Let’s have a round of applause for Thumper’s dad, shall we? And now one for his mom… they tag team this idea perfectly (for imaginary characters in a cartoon movie). Kindness means that even if what we are going to say is true, it may not be right or kind to say it. The substance of a statement can be correct while the speaking of the statement is not correct. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. Thumper’s been teaching it since 1942. “But it’s true” isn’t a good enough reason to say it.
2) Kindness is more than manners, but it includes manners. Kindness is sometimes costly and requires an expenditure of energy. Kindness is practiced and cultivated, it’s learned behavior. Kindness is a choice about the way a person will speak and act, and it’s a choice best made before a situation in which we hope to be kind or to show kindness. We teach our kids to choose to and then practice treating people the way they want to themselves be treated.
3) Kindness is also muscle memory. Grabbing a door to hold it open or moving to help someone when they drop something… these things are best as reflexes. Some kids will learn to point and laugh, and some kids will learn to look away and move on. Who will practice and develop the instinct to kindness? What kids will jump to help?As parents we are at the forefront of teaching our kids how they behave in common, every day situations. Do we model kindness for them? Do we stop and help someone who has dropped something or fallen? Do we hold the door at a restaurant or rush to get in front of one or two people and get our food maybe 60 seconds faster? What do our kids learn of kindness from us? It should be a positive message that they hear and see from us all the time, and not just when they’re being naughty.
You Are To Be Supportive.
Teaching kids to be empathetic and aware of what others are experiencing is easier than you think. Kids know who is being bullied, and they know how it feels to be bullied. In fact, we may be teaching children not to be empathetic or actually removing their empathy by not teaching, modeling and reinforcing a good awareness of others and their suffering or joy. There is evidence showing kids to be naturally empathetic. As our children grow up, they are in general ready to learn this from us and have it affirmed. The seed of empathy is there, but will it be nurtured and grown in our care or neglected and extinguished?
Looking back to the sad story of young Michael attempting to take his life, I’m left wondering how many of his classmates could empathize with his pain, but did not have the formation from parents to act on their empathy? How many times do we say to our children, “Reach out and support the hurting.” A parent may want to argue that putting such moral responsibility on a young person could be too much for them at age 11 or 12, but they have it within them to see another’s pain and offer support.
This is not in any way to suggest that his classmates who did not bully him are responsible for his attempted suicide. It is to ask if we are affirming what our kids already feel, that the pain of another person is something to which they can and should respond in helpful, healthful, constructive ways. Not only can classmates lend support and strength to a bullied student, but they could also engage adults to help and be more aware of the problem.
As I’m writing I’m also reading to my wife and we’re batting things back and forth. She just asked, “So how do we teach kids to be supportive?” She means, “How is this actually done so that my child knows what to do?” Kids are naturally empathetic, but they may not have the knowledge or maturity to act on it in the best ways. Let’s think of several things our kids can do, and we’ll frame these as “we can” statements, because we all can do this:
1) We can speak up. When someone is being hurt, humiliated or bullied, it sometimes just takes one voice in opposition saying, “Enough!” Our kids don’t have to get in a fight to stand up for someone. That don’t have to scream to say, “No more. Not right. Not true.” Thinking back on my statement that kids aren’t always cruel, but often unaware, they can be easily caught up in a moment of escalation. They may not be prepared to not follow when their group is gaining momentum in bullying a classmate, unless we have taught them to watch for it. And if it’s too crazy, the bullying is just too scary and we’re afraid… then we can speak up to someone else who can help. Our kids need to know that we as parents and other adults want to help the hurting. They can come to us.
2) We can give encouragement. Speaking up is not always in opposition, but can be in support of the person being hurt. Our kids can learn to respond to people’s pain with kindness shown in words like, “What they said about you isn’t true.” Maybe it’s written in a note and passed along later. Maybe it’s a smile. When someone else is being robbed of their dignity and worth by hurtful actions and words, we can supply the positive words and actions which help make up the difference. Know what this takes? It takes parents who really do believe that kindness is strength. It takes parents who are willing to model kindness for their children.
3) We can show friendship. It’s done in simple ways like saying hello, goodbye, good job and otherwise acknowledging another’s worth. A bullied child lives in fear and isolation. We can end that isolation. We can say hello to the person that no one greets. We can congratulate another person’s good work. We can let someone know that we are watching to see them again tomorrow. We can make sure someone has a point of contact and are not completely lost and alone.
An ongoing conversation, and Michael’s future…
This is not a lesson that we get to sit down and share once, but it’s a way we model life for our kids and a lesson that we have to reaffirm again and again. I hope you hear in my post that I’m not interested in vilifying or witch-hunting anyone, especially children, even bullying children. I’m interested in being involved and engaged enough to talk with our kids and help them to learn to take their natural empathy and act on it in helpful, healthful ways.
Michael’s full physical injuries are not known at this time. Let’s pray for a full recovery! If you want to help with his medical costs, you can do that here at a GoFundMe campaign. There’s a touching interview with Michael’s step-father here.
And what about My Little Pony? I have to say that I didn’t watch the original series from way back in the 80’s and I barely remember the toys when I was young. I have however watched a lot of episodes of the newer animated series and anyone who says it’s just for girls is simply wrong. The show is funny, clever and wonderfully supportive of moral behavior. Here’s the Hasbro site, Wikipedia, and the MLP Wiki. It’s fun, just simply fun. And nothing as fun as MLP should be used as a weapon to hurt a human being.