When I was in eighth grade, I sat next to this awkward girl in Math who was bigger than me in every way. I had enough trouble following the lesson as is – I hated math – but it was even harder because this girl, Melanie, would talk to me through the whole thing.
Often I would try to ignore her, but she would just keep talking. Eventually, the teacher called us out in front of the whole class. After school that day, I caught up with her in the courtyard and told her she needed to leave me alone in class. I was polite about it, hoping we could be friends outside of math. It didn’t quite work out that way.
Her face squeezed into a terrifying scowl and she said, “You’ll talk to me in math class or I’ll kick your ass.”
Now, this girl was a good three times my size. She was beefy and reminded me of Mike Ditka. When she said that and stepped closer, the comedic value of the scene was lost on me, and I damn near shit my pants.
“'Kay” I said, with my proverbial tail between my legs. I shuffled all four and a half feet of me to my locker, shocked at the fact that something straight out of an after-school special had just happened in real life.
That evening, I didn’t hesitate to tell my parents what had gone on. My Dad began to explain to me that people who do things like that are usually hurting in some way. Maybe she didn’t have any friends and was terrified at losing the one relationship she’d managed to hang on to, even if it was during math class. Maybe someone overpowered her on a regular basis, so she sought out people she could have power over.
“Maybe she’s just an idiot, Dad.” I offered.
“Honey, I know this is not easy to understand, but she’s not an idiot. If you respond to this with hostility toward her, she’ll only become angrier. It will become a nasty cycle that could end up in someone getting hurt. The only way you can stop something like this is by trying to understand the other person. There is something driving her to act this way. Try to understand that the something she may be dealing with, is likely a helluva lot worse than having someone annoy you in math class.”
I was 13. I was so angry at my Dad. I didn’t think it was fair. He was basically standing up for her, even though she was the one who had threatened me. I couldn’t believe it. I left the room in a huff.
Still mad at my Dad for seemingly taking Melanie’s side, I went to school the next day. I walked all the way, mulling over in my mind what my Dad had said.
How could he take her side on this? Why did he want me to be nice to her?
As I entered the school grounds, I turned the corner into the front courtyard and stopped. In the distance, I saw Melanie. She was sitting on a bench, alone, hunched over, staring at her shoes. I suddenly recalled having seen her in this position many times before. I tried to remember a time that I saw her with friends or laughing or enjoying herself. The only times I could remember her even smiling was when she was talking to me in math class.
I stared and watched her for a few minutes. She just sat there. Barely moving, just staring at her feet, picking at her shoelaces. It was as though she was trying to be invisible.
I felt a pang of sympathy.
Goddamnit, Dad is right, I thought.
I took a step, grumbled, “fuck it” and headed toward her.
“How’s it going, Mel. Get your math homework done?” I asked and took the seat next to her. Sure, it was out of pity. Sure, it wasn’t entirely selfless. But she looked up at me and smiled. I made a point of including her during breaks at school from then on and my Dad requested that my math teacher separate Mel and me in class. After that, she never threatened to kick my ass again.
My fucking Dad, right?
Last week, I got this tweet,
and I was reminded of Melanie. I was picked on by a lot of kids throughout my school career. I was nerdy and liked strange clothes. I was short and shy. I kept moving away to foreign countries and coming back. I’d been picked on by different people throughout my whole childhood.
It had rarely bothered me to the point that I became depressed or down on myself. If I had to give one reason why, it’s because my parents pounded it into my skull that I was simply perfect just the way that I was and if anyone didn’t like it, they weren’t the type of people I needed in my life.
Bullying is a serious problem these days, more so than in my time I think, and I am not ready to just blame it simply on the bullies. I think that with busier parents, dual-income households and all the tech we have in front of us, kids aren’t having as much face to face time with their parents as they ought to be. This leaves room for insecurities which turns kids either into people who bully or people who get bullied.
In my opinion, protecting your children from bullies or the effects of being bullied, can be countered in several ways:
1. Iterate and reiterate, over and over, that whatever it is that they get bullied about is normal, maybe even better than everyone else and no matter how many people poke fun of it, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. If you think you’ve said it enough, say it a hundred more times. Do not leave room for questions. If your kids are being bullied because they don’t go to church, make sure to explain to them that there is nothing wrong with not going to church and that thinking freely is a far better way to live than to be dragged down by an outdated, barbaric dogma that actively works to hurt people. Keep saying this. Say it over and over and over and over. Talk about it with your kids. Put your phone away, turn off the TV, face your children and tell them this. When it sinks in, hearing someone poke fun at the fact that they don’t go to church will become almost a joke to your kids. It will roll off their backs, because they already know beyond any doubt, that there is nothing wrong with not attending church.
2. Explain to your children why bullies act the way that they do. When people have insecurities, even adults, sometimes it causes them to act in ways that hurt other people. Tell your kids that when someone acts like a bully towards them, it usually means that they are themselves dealing with something very difficult. Perhaps it’s simple jealousy that they have to spend hours in church on a Sunday morning while your children can play and do normal kid things. Explain to them that it could also be something worse. Perhaps a parent or adult is mean to him or her at home. Maybe the child is neglected. Any one of these things can lead a kid to bully other kids. Your children should have a clear understanding that the only way a cycle of bullying, threats or violence can end, is if one party offers up their understanding.
3. Try to encourage your children to befriend the people who pick on them. If your kids are being bullied for not going to church, tell them to ask their tormentors about the church. Teach them to open a dialogue and teach them how to listen. Few people can turn away a friendship with a great listener. Even kids.
4. Hang out with other secular families outside of school. Use Meetup.com to find some secular social events in your area. I’ve yet to come across any areas without anything like that. Even if it’s just an adult only type of event, go with your spouse with the intent to meet other people with kids. Get those kids together with yours as often as you can. If your kid can meet other kids going through the same things as they are, they will not feel alone and any bullying they do experience will not have a very long-lasting effect on them.
5. Talk to your kids about the fact that when people are raised religious, being faced with doubts about that religion is like having to accept the possibility that their entire worldview is wrong or a lie. Ask your kids how they would feel if they feared that maybe they’d been lied to by everyone who mattered to them their whole life.
6. Keep your kids busy and encourage their passions. A kid who is accomplishing great things on a regular basis, has little time to sit around and lament what the Bible thumpers think of him. Each accomplishment comes with a sense of pride, and the stronger your child’s belief in himself is, the less he needs to be accepted by everyone else.
7. Encourage your kids to express their frustrations when they have them. Be a great listener when they do this. It could be about anything. What you’re having for dinner, homework, cleaning their room. Obviously don’t let your children speak to you rudely about it, but teach them how to talk about it in a productive way, like, “Dad, I am so frustrated with this homework,” or “I really hate having to take out the trash.” No matter how silly it may seem to you, engage them in those moments because if you prove you will listen when something is bothering them, they will come to you when it’s something more serious.
8. Martial arts – should all of these tactics fail, and your child is faced with serious violence at school at the hands of a bully, equip them with the one tool that teaches them that violence is not the answer and that all other avenues of self-defence should be exhausted before resorting to a physical altercation. Give them the confidence to walk around knowing that they carry a tool with them that can defeat their foes, should they ever find themselves in a situation that can’t be resolved any other way. Martial Arts doesn’t just teach you self-defence. It teaches you patience, self-control, discipline and it fills kids with tons of confidence. Plus, once your child progresses through the ranks and picks up some skills, you can feel relaxed in knowing that they are more capable of standing up for themselves than even you are.
These things won’t ward off every bully, but they will certainly equip your kids with the tools to get through it relatively unscathed.
How do you deal with bullying in your household? Let me know in the comments. Thanks for the question, Sam!