Hey, that’s not funny…

December 23, 2008

Mack has been getting bullied at school and I really had to search for some good advice to give him. It’s not that I lack experience getting bullied. Growing up, it seemed that there was never a shortage of older kids who felt it necessary to put the screws to me. I’m pretty sure that I had at least one kid, at times a large group of kids, who felt it necessary to push me around every school year. But times were different back then. If all things remained constant, my advice to Mack would be similar to the advice my father gave me.  “If a kid is pushing you around you have a right to defend yourself, to include punching him in the mouth”. This advice was pretty sound and fairly effective thirty years ago.



These days, I’m not so sure that this advice would be prudent. With all of the violence that takes place in schools these days, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a stiff jab to the lips will escalate to even greater violence. Even in grade school, serious violence is occurring at an alarmingly increasing rate. I know this all too well. My heightened sense of awareness is a consequence of some of the projects that I’ve worked on throughout my career.


The thing that bothers me most is the confusion that Mack feels from being victimized. Mack has always been loved and popular with everyone that he has met so the idea of someone targeting him for abuse is difficult for him to get his arms around. He’s too young to understand that sometimes kids, like life, can be cruel. I’m not so sure that I’m ready for him to learn that lesson anyway- even if it’s true.


When we talked the other night, I could hear the pain in his voice and I took it very personally. I don’t want Mack to grow up unwilling to explore the world around him out of fear of running into his tormentors nor do I want him to change who he is in an effort to appease those who don’t recognize what a terrific guy he is. He mentioned both of these as possible courses of action. Mack told me, “Those kids hang out by the wally-ball court; I really like wally-ball, but maybe I shouldn’t play”.  I want my son to play wally-ball whenever he wants to, damn it, he’s 8 years old. I guess I just want him to be happy and enjoy a couple more carefree years before he’s thrust into the stressful life of a teenager.


That’s the situation and here is the advice I gave him. Approach your bullies one at a time- most kids aren’t so tough when the odds aren’t in their favor or they don’t have a crowd to perform for. When you get him alone, calmly ask why he’s being mean to you, make him articulate his gripe. Most bullies don’t know why they picked a particular victim, only that it seemed like a good idea at the time. If the bully does have a reason, it’s probably something ridiculously petty. My hope is that when the bully is searching for the “why”, he’ll realize that there really isn’t good reason- the victim was arbitrary. Maybe this epiphany will lead the bully to the conclusion that Mack’s not such a bad guy after all and he’ll decide to leave him alone. This is wishful thinking, isn’t it? However, in theory, it should work.


The next option I gave Mack was to tell his teacher that he’s being picked on. This one has pros and cons. Telling a teacher and having an educator follow up with the help of a guidance counselor could really help limit violence in our school systems. For instance, the tormentor may have a host of underlying issues that are the cause of his behavior e.g. mental/physical abuse, broken home, neglect, etcetera. Wouldn’t it be great if our school guidance counselors identified more of these at risk kids and got them the help they needed?


The downside of going to an educator is that Mack could be labeled as a snitch- really no big deal to an adult, but a heavy consequence when you’re eight years old. On top of that, I have to wonder if running for help will discourage Mack from developing a sense of self-reliance. Ideally, I want him to have the confidence to face his problems first and then seek help if the issue is too big to tackle without assistance. This is a worthwhile goal. I’ve run into plenty of adults who have never had to solve their own problems and it really hasn’t done them any favors.


The third option I provided was reminiscent of my father.  “Dude, if you’re getting beat on, you have to fight back”. I cringed when I said this because of the fears that I voiced earlier, but sometimes little boys get into fistfights, this is just a sad reality. When I was a little older than Mack, I faced similar circumstances. I was picked on by a group of kids the entire school year. It wasn’t until the final day of school, when I had reached my limit that I decided to put an end to it. I fought several kids that day. I won some and I lost some, but more importantly, I showed them that pushing me around came at a cost. The investment was too great and that group of kids never bothered me again. To this day, I am convinced that had I not decided to defend myself, they would have continued to torment me. In this one instance, violence did not beget more violence.


If you have boys, this issue will most likely be raised at some point along the way. I can’t speak to girls- I’ve never been one, nor do I have any daughters, but I wouldn’t be surprised if bullying was common for them as well. This is a really complex issue. We love our kids so much that it’s hard to imagine someone not feeling the same way, and when they don’t, we immediately move into hyper-protection mode. I’m not sure this is an optimal or even advisable solution.


If you haven’t dealt with this issue yet, my advice is to provide your child with some sound alternatives. Allow them to maintain some degree of control in the process. Being bullied makes you feel helpless so a bit of control may make them feel empowered. I gave Mack three possible paths to follow and allowed him to choose.


The next step is to remain accessible to your child. I didn’t push for details, but I made sure to leave the door open for discussion for when he was ready to re-engage the topic. My goal was to not come across so strong that I pushed him into doing something that he wasn’t ready to do.


Finally, I kept a close eye on him. I listened to him more intently. I watched his behaviors with greater scrutiny. I even paid more attention to what he was drawing or writing in his notebooks. If Mack felt that he couldn’t talk to me about his problems, they would likely manifest themselves elsewhere and I wanted to make sure that I caught them as early as possible.


Of course, I don’t have a child psychology degree, a daytime talk show or years of data to back up my theories. I’m just a dad, concerned about his son and trying to help him the best that I can. I wasn’t even sure I should publish this post. Most of my writing is pretty light so this is a departure from the norm for me. But then I ran into another dad going through the same thing with his son. We spoke for almost an hour on this very topic and it was really helpful to hear someone else’s perspective. It was then that I decided to throw this piece up for public consumption.


I’m really looking for input on this post so if you have some advice or just want to share your experiences please drop a comment.

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Claire posted the following on December 29, 2008 at 1:01 am.

I ran across your blog when I googled “Why are kids afraid of basements?” Evidence suggests it is common among 8 year old boys 🙂 I decided to check out more posts when I realized our boys have some things in common. I saw this post, and had to respond. Our son was being bullied earlier this year. It got so bad that he actually made himself physically ill from the stress. Ths other child was in every class/group with our son. They were together every minute of every day. Both our son and the bully are special needs kids, and they went to reading groups, math groups, writing tutoring time, and sensory breaks together as well as being in the same classroom and lunch/recess group.

My son ended up refusing to go places with the other child while at school, which as you can imagine, created some consternation with the teachers. Once they realized what was happening, they adjusted the circumstances, separating the boys for gym, reading, math, and sensory breaks. Both boys were spoken to, as our son needed to learn appropriate responses (impulse control!), as well as the other boy learning to be kind. It has been almost two months since our son reported the abuse, and I’m happy to say the school has handled it beautifully, without a major incident since then. Our son’s health has cleared up, and he no longer fears school. Now if we could just get him or his sister to play in the basement alone . . . 😉

admin posted the following on December 29, 2008 at 4:55 pm.

Claire, so glad it worked out for your boy. I was hoping that I would get some feedback on this topic so that others could use the info to help make decisions for their kids- and your input should do just that.

My son ended up approaching one of the kids that was bullying him and asked him why he was being so mean to him. The kid didn’t really have an answer so they shook hands and decided to just stay away from each other, though secretly my boy still wants a friendship. His attitude towards school improved as a result- in fact life in general improved.

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