February 27, 2015

When My Kid Was the Bully

I'm pretty upset right  now.  This morning I got a call from the principal at the boys' school.  She had Jack in her office.  Apparently, he had been really mean to another kid at recess.  It wasn't a one time thing and I guess it had been going on for a couple weeks.

During the phone call, I tried to stay calm and actually focus on what the principal was saying.  Panicky, one-word questions kept flying through my head.  What? How? Why? Jack?

Yes, Jack.

I was mad.  Mad at him, mad at me, mad at the situation.

The principal told me that the other little boy's parents had coached him to tell Jack that he didn't like the mean comments and to please stop.  If that didn't work, they told him to walk away from the football game.  If it still kept happening, the parents told their son to tell another adult.

All of these happened, yet Jack still didn't stop the ugliness.  The boy had said no yet Jack didn't stop.  He was the bully.  He was the one that was verbally stomping on another kid.  He was going against all we taught him, against everything we believed in.

This kid probably went home so distressed each day. He was probably nervous at the beginning of each recess.  Those parents probably wrung their hands and agonized over dropping off their little boy each day to enter the recess lion's den.

All of this was eerily familiar.  Just a few months ago, Jack, Tim and I were all in their shoes.  We were on the other side of the line. A kid from his class kept singling Jack out and finding various ways to put him down.  Jack was in tears each night. We coached him and agonized each day. It stopped before we had to call the teacher or principal, but what if it hadn't?  What if we were the ones having to let the school know that our child was being minimized.

Not only was I mad, but I was disappointed.  I was disappointed in his actions but mostly, I felt like I failed him as a parent.  Both Tim and I were in a tail spin after the phone call.  We couldn't focus on anything else.  Nothing more got crossed off my to-do list and Tim couldn't focus on work.  We discussed all the possible scenarios.  We wondered if our parenting missteps led Jack to make this huge mistake.  We wondered if the kid he was picking on was actually the same kid who was picking on him earlier and he took our whole sticking up for himself coaching a little too far.  I'm not going to lie, I would have felt a little vindicated if that was the case.  We would just have to sit Jack down and say, "Okay, you made your point, albeit a little too far, now it's time to stop."

My whole logic on the bullying epidemic is that kids are learning how to interact with each other by watching us, the parents.  This is the main reason I was so tormented by this situation.  Where did we go wrong?  Tim and I don't pick on each other.  We try to thoughtfully converse with each of the boys.  We try to facilitate healthy discussions between the two of them when a fight arises.  We try to treat everybody else around us with respect.  We aren't perfect at any of those things, but the objectives are always love, respect, grace and empathy.

Where was our blindspot?  What weren't we seeing?  How could we teach and model differently?

We ended up driving over to the school to get Jack's whole take on the situation.  Our entire day was disturbed and unsettled; we had to get face to face with Jack and chat with him.  He had a fun pizza party reading reward at lunch and there was no way in hell he would get to enjoy that if he wasn't sorry for tormenting another soul.

I had already prepped myself with the ways that would upset me and disappoint me even more.  I didn't want him to be remorseful just because he got in trouble.  I didn't want him to be sorry because now he was labeled as a bully.  I didn't want him to be upset because there were parent and school consequences to his meanness escapade.

I wanted to see true remorse because he had made another human being feel less than.  I wanted to know that he completely understood, and remembered, how it felt to be the little one with a bigger one towering menacingly overhead.  I wanted to see him outward focused, rather than inward focused.  How did this situation affect that other little boy instead of how it affected him?  I knew that if this was the case, there was a really good chance we wouldn't have to address the issue again.

I was still scared.  I know Jack is a thoughtful and loving boy, but he still did this to another person.  I wanted to foresee how he would respond to getting caught.  I was hoping it was a wake up call and he would reverse direction when he realized the bigger picture.  The bigger picture being the other little boy's heart.

Thankfully, he was remorseful for all the right reasons.  He had already genuinely and compassionately apologized to the other boy.  He completely understood why the school and parent given consequences were in the picture.  He had already lost recess time and he knew more consequences and conversations would come later after school.  We let him enjoy his pizza party because he earned that and it wasn't directly related to the recess thing.  Actually, reading is another situation where he lacks motivation to work hard so I didn't want to discourage that part.  We told him he will be doing several things at home that will illustrate to us his thought process on how to make retribution, how to move forward and hopefully never make this mistake again.

When he got home from school, we got the whole story again.  We discussed it in and out.  Of course he was nervous to talk to us, he's a kid who got in trouble.  Of course he didn't want to get in trouble or be labeled as a mean kid.  We reiterated that the main reason he should be sorry was because he hurt that little boy.  Most of the time we never tell each of the boys how they should feel in any situation, but this one trumped that rule.  He already felt this way but we wanted to emphasize that the main reason this was wrong was because someone else got hurt by Jack's actions.

To better illustrate our point, Tim told a story about when he was in 8th grade shop class:

"When I was younger, I was a bully too.  There was a kid who I had a class with named Dale.  Dale stuttered and it made him talk different than the other kids.  Dale didn't have any other friends.  We were in shop class together and I came up to him and asked him what he was working on.  You see, Dale was really talented at everything we did in shop. He got really excited and told me all about his project and who he was making it for.  He thought he was finally making a friend.
After he was done talking, I said, "C-c-c-c-oool Dale.  Th-th-th-th-that's really n-n-n-n-neat."
Dale's face fell.  Tears rolled down his cheeks.  "A-a-a-are you m-m-m-m-making fun of me Tim?"
Then it all hit me.  I was making Dale feel like garbage.  He thought he was making a friend but then I turned around and hurt him instead.  I was trying to make my own friends laugh but he thought I was there to be friendly.  It was then and there that I decided that I would NEVER EVER use others to be funny.  I would never hurt a person to get a laugh out of my friends.  That's when I decided that self-depreciating humor was the way to go.  I would make others laugh by making fun of myself.  I had thicker skin so I could take my own beating so others wouldn't have to.
I always remember Dale.  He's still with me, helping me be kind to others.  And if there is someone to poke fun at, I make sure it's me.  I can take it.  I don't want others to hurt, especially at my hand. 
I always remember Dale and it would be helpful for you to always remember this little boy.  Remember how he hurt.  Remember how you felt when you were in his position.

Jack is a good boy, he just made a mistake.  I'm not going to make excuses for him but I'm not going to let this define him either.  I'm not going to let this slide without an important lesson being learned.  Just because he was picked on at one point, doesn't mean he has reason to pick on someone else.  Verbally bashing another is not cool and it's not funny.  Bullying isn't even justified if that person "started it."  There is a difference between standing up for yourself and slashing back at someone who hurt you.  A wrong for a wrong, doesn't make a right, even if it feels justified in the moment.

I hope he keeps this whole thing in his brain for years to come.  I hope he thinks twice when his possible actions may belittle another.  I hope he chooses differently next time, and every time after that.  And I hope if he messes up again, he'll come to terms quickly and right the wrong as soon as possible.

Thinking over this situation, I see some holes in my parenting.  I think, Tim and I may have portrayed that there are only two sides in this fight of life: The bully and the bullied.  I may have only illustrated the eat and be eaten positions.  While both those roles exist in the larger world, there is another dimension.  Our world isn't two dimensional; the three dimensions are the consumer, the consumed and something else.  I don't have a name for it.  It's just the space between or the step back.  It's a place where we don't have to pick a side, we can see both, help both and love both.  It's a place where we can pick the bullied off the ground and still have compassion for the one pushing down.  The step back is not hands off.  We are still called to stand up for the outliers. We cannot afford to stay silent and therefore, inactively condone the poor choices made by the power seekers.  We just need to know that even if we have played a part in the two dimensional world, that's not all.  There's more, there is space between and we all belong there.

Those are the things I need to teach the boys.  It will be a continual conversation, I'm sure, just like every major life discussion.  Parenting is funny.  You hurt when your kids get injured.  You are happy when they are joyful.  You are proud when they overcome.  But you also hurt when they make mistakes.  You hurt for the people they affected and you hurt for them.  Today there was a lot of hurt and it sucked.  I'm sure it was horrible for the other parents and little boy too, but the sun has gone down on today and tomorrow there will be new light and new freedom.  A new day with no mistakes in it.  A new day where we can all heal instead of hurt.

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