Our Son was Bullied :: Our Response
When we saw our perfectionist son’s face as he waited for us in the carpool line, we could already tell that he had a bad day. He’s not accustomed to getting in trouble for bad behavior and absolutely dreads our reaction, especially if it’s disappointment. All of this was written on his face, and I could barely tell him “Hey, bud!” before he interrupted with a confession that he had gotten a mark that day, an indicator of not meeting expectations.
He’s gotten marks before, usually for talking out of turn. In typical Type-A fashion, he’s even earned them by telling on himself. If the teacher asked “Who was talking in the cafeteria?” he would raise his hand, taking the honesty-is-the-best-policy approach. And truth be told, we weren’t that upset with him when we found out about that circumstance. We’d rather he remain honest than lie to evade punishment. But this time was different. This time he confessed that he’d gotten a mark for spitting. At another human being. (We found out later that it was more like he blew a raspberry out of frustration. Meanwhile, I was envisioning him hawking a loogy at someone like Rose from Titanic!)
We were immediately angry with him. While we explained that literally no circumstance EVER would warrant a response, we nonetheless wanted to know what led to such disgusting behavior. And that’s when the entire situation got more complex than we had anticipated.
The Reason Behind It
He said that two girls in his class were picking on him while the substitute teacher was helping some other students. He even divulged that they’d been doing this for the past few years, making fun of him for being short – the shortest student in the class, in fact. Naturally, like any parents who hear about their children experiencing frustration or sadness, we were heartbroken for him. But we chose not to take that response. We chose instead to focus on his role in the situation, even if he were the “victim.”
The first thing we told him was that he often would not be able to control or change situations in life but that he is always responsible for his reaction. In this case and many others involving bullying, the girls wanted to see if they had enough power to make him upset. Obviously they succeeded, so we also explained that he gave them exactly what they wanted. In this situation, they “won.” This means they’ll probably come back to do it again because it worked. We went on to say that if and when things like this happen again (because they will), he should never give a bully the power that he/she desires. We also brought up that usually bullies say ugly things because they’re afraid other kids will say something ugly to them first, which is sad.
He *IS* short
I know it sounds odd, but the next thing we did was acknowledge the truth of the bullies’ statement (more gently than the bullies did, of course) so that we could dismiss it as powerless and silly. He *IS* short. When we go to the doctor, he’s usually in the bottom 5th percentile. On the most recent trip, he was in the 1st percentile. As in 99% of kids his age are taller than he is. These are the facts, and we need to face them. Does that make him inferior to others? No.
Lots of people have lots of things they don’t like about themselves that they have to accept regardless. I hated my curly, frizzy hair for most of my life and was often teased about it growing up. I obviously wasn’t happy about the teasing (no pun intended), but I ignored it, and it ended. My identity wasn’t tied to what other people thought about my hair or anything else. His shouldn’t be tied to his height. We told him to look around at his family members. “Is Mommy short? Yes. Is Daddy short? Yes. Is your brother short? Yes. Is your sister short? Yes. We’re all short. Do you think there’s anything wrong with us for being short?” We also affirmed the many wonderful things about him that have nothing to do with height.
Then, we empowered him with some responses in the (now more likely) case that this should happen again, even doing some role-playing: “Hey! You’re short! You’re the shortest kid in the class!” “Okay. I know.” What was absolutely, inexcusably forbidden was responding to ugliness with more ugliness. No, sir. And spitting?! Out of the question! For his reaction, which is always under his control and entirely his responsibility, he was punished for the rest of the week. Furthermore, he was to apologize to the girls for spitting (yes, because the action, no matter to whom it was directed, was ugly). Then he was to completely ignore them, separate himself from them, and never–under any circumstances–behave the way they did to anyone, even to them. I may not be in charge of them, but I’m in charge of my kids, and that’s just not how we behave.
One thing you’ll notice we didn’t do is call anyone in his defense. Not the teacher, not the parents of the girls, not the principal. No one. And we told him we wouldn’t. If we were to come to his rescue, he would expect that of us from that point forward, continuing to make himself a victim, and this sort of behavior is unfortunately sure to continue. We don’t condone it, but we aren’t pretending this sort of timeless sociological behavior of dominance doesn’t or won’t exist.
I felt validated later when I saw a video that asserted the same thing. As soon as I saw it floating around social media, I made our boys watch it a couple of times and tell me what they learned from it. I know we’re not done with this battle, and I know there’s no perfect way to handle such a complex situation. In the meantime, though, this was and will likely continue to be our approach.