It was my 6-year-old who set me straight on twenty-first century bullying.
“Mommy, please don’t pack raisins in my lunch anymore,” she said flatly. “Nobody likes raisins and I shouldn’t eat them.”
“But you like raisins. A lot,” I said. “Doesn’t that count for something?”
Apparently not, because one girl at school who did not like raisins was quite convinced that no one else should. And in her effort to tear down raisin repute class-wide, this little bully sought to systematically dismantle the self-respect of every raisin-loving first grader at the lunch table.
Until then, I’d had a fairly uncomplicated view of bullying. Think Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story, physically abusing Ralphie and his buddies on the way home from school. Or Jody Angus from my childhood, verbally abusing us parochial school students in our plaid jumpers.
I would have a lot to learn.
Unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. That’s one way to think of bullying. Today, it’s a concept that is so comprehensive that the number of children who fit under its massive umbrella – including targets, bystanders, and of course, bullies themselves – is growing every day, right along with our kids.
For me, it means that even if you think you’re raising a relatively typical child, some kid, somewhere will decide that publicly sharing his opinion about your child’s size (bony or plump), grades (good or bad), hair (long or short), or skin (white, brown, dry, or oily) is much more important than your child’s feelings. Even lunch choices – and I’m not just talking raisins, folks, but also hard-boiled eggs, cottage cheese, and store-brand cereal bars – are likely to come under fire.
Add to that all the technology for strategically and anonymously launching emotional missiles and you realize that these days, there is a bully out there for most everyone.
Obviously, some bullying is different. These are the tragic cases – the cold-blooded, intentional cruelty that thankfully most of us anxious parents will only read about online.
But when you talk to your children about what bullying looks like at their school, it might just be that kid (the raisin hater for example) who is convinced that everything he or she has to say is important. You can chalk it up to a simple, yet sad, truth: There are many obnoxious kids in the world who say ignorant things and pass judgment on others to make themselves look and feel more powerful. To keep from raising one of them, we parents have to talk about diversity at home, and model and teach tolerance and acceptance of all things (yes, that includes food groups). By doing this, we prepare our children to move through the world with empathy and compassion for others.
Like when my youngest mentioned that a girl in her PE class was getting unwanted attention in the locker room. This girl wasn’t a close friend, but my daughter wanted to do something to help her. Eager to cast my child in the hero role, I was ready with a few Mom-flavored suggestions, but big sister had some ideas of her own. “You can just stand by the girl so she doesn’t feel so alone,” she said. “Or get dressed in front of her so the other girls can’t see her.” Pretty good stuff.
I recalled my first exposure to the bully culture, my gut reaction during the infamous raisin eradication campaign, and some of the responses I had originally considered: talking to the teacher; calling the raisin hater’s parents; joining my daughter for lunch one day with my own box of raisins. I even armed my child with verbal jabs to put the girl in her place. I’m sure she didn’t utter a single one of them. Ultimately, I stepped back and did exactly what my daughter asked of me.
My baby lived without raisins for a few months and steered clear of the lunchroom bully. It was her decision, and in the end, a small price to pay for some peace and quiet at the lunch table.
The takeaway? As terrifying as the thought of bullying might be for many parents and kids, the good ones will find their way through the minefield of adolescence and emerge triumphant, tolerant – and perhaps, still enjoying raisins. If we give them the chance.