Early 1970’s: A newly married bride receives an unexpected letter. It is from a college friend whom, back in college, everyone had called, ‘flat-chested,’ ‘a boy’ and more, because she was ‘too lean to be a girl.’ The bride had also laughed, and never tried to stop anyone. The letter told her that. And it said how much she had valued her as a friend, but was deeply hurt since she never stood up for her. The letter still haunts her.
Late 1980’s: A girl is ‘playfully’ taunted for having huge manly hands, and made to feel like an outcast – mostly by kids of her own gender. She still tries to hide her hands in the folds of her dress. She is nearing 40 now.
Last month, 2013: ‘Oh ho! You know how it is! They are stepping into teens. They tend to get a bit violent sometimes.’ Those are the words of a teacher who had been approached by a parent of a preteen. The boy had been severely beaten up by two boys for tattling on them.
These are not made up stories, but real incidents from our own land. We have, for long, attributed issues like bullying to the West, when in fact, it has always been very real here as well. We name it ‘toughening,’ ‘harmones,’ ‘learning’ and more such ridiculous things. And then we sometimes reinforce it – by either belittling it, ignoring it, or worse, lashing out at the child who is going through it all – ‘Be tough! It is all a part of growing up!’
Here’s the thing – Being called names is definitely not a part of growing up, toughening up, or any other such delusional developmental milestone. It is just one thing – bullying. And it is on the rise. Time and again I have been given a checklist of what bullying is not. Interestingly, over the years, it seems everything has figured on the list. So basically according to a lot of children, teachers, parents: nothing is bullying – things just happen and they can’t be classified under such a horrific term. Time to clarify a few things here:
1. Calling someone chubby, or dark or ‘chashmish’ is not bullying. Children do it all the time. Just because children do it all the time, doesn’t give it legitimacy. Name-calling or any other form of verbal abuse is rarely considered serious. I urge to you to fish out statistics. You’d be shocked to see the rising number of children who succumb to the tirade, try to kill themselves, and sadly, a lot of times, succeed.
2. A slap here or there shouldn’t be taken seriously. Yes, children fight, slap, and kick, and then one day the fight gets nasty. If the child is lucky enough to escape, he has learnt a faulty lesson – ‘it is okay to be oppressed and a good way of dealing with conflict/insecurity is beating the other person to pulp.’ And if he isn’t lucky, then he gets to be a statistic.
3. Teachers never bully/aid bullying. This one is another sad myth. The other day at the school open house, I was told that one of my boys asked too many questions and it was not good since, ‘other kids would make fun of him and ridicule him. You know how important it is for them to fit in.’ I sat there blinking for a while and then I exploded – as politely as I could. And of course, we all have heard of teachers ridiculing children, all in the name of humour, getting friendly with the kids, and generally trying to be a part of the ‘in-group.’
4. Girls do not bully. A little girl recently lost her life to bullying in Kolkata and another one in Florida – and these are just two. There are numerous others. Girls are as capable of bullying as boys and get as nasty. I have a friend whose daughter is taunted for her weight, and her constant immersion in books.
5. Bullying is another name for a fight and boy, do kids fight! Wrong again. In a fight there is some amount of conflict whereas in a bullying scenario the bullied child is hardly able to defend himself, and repeatedly suffers at the hand of bullies.
6. Bullying? That’s just a fancy made-up name for kids being just that – a bunch of silly kids. Bullying has far more serious affect than just kids trying to be kids. From behavioural problems, academic disturbances, to depression and even suicide – all outcomes have been seen, researched and neatly tabulated.
7. Bullying toughens the kids up. That one invariably makes me cringe. Do you go around asking your doctor to inject typhoid-causing bacteria in your system so that you can toughen up your digestion? Bullying is a disease that weakens the child and in no way helps him becoming tough. For that there is love, support, and the child’s character strengths.
8. Had it been so serious, my child would have told me. It is no big deal, they can handle it. Only one in three kids are known to tell an adult, and the older they get, the more aversive the idea of telling a parent becomes. They fear they won’t be taken seriously, or worse – the parent might create a scene at school, and make the child an even bigger subject of ridicule.
9. Whatever limited bullying there is, it is confined to school. On the contrary, it is everywhere – the school, the playground, the evening park, the school bus, and the cyberspace. Bullies are found everywhere, and they find victims everywhere.
10. My child needs to fight back the bully. Only then will he/she stop. If your child fights back in the same way he was treated, then he is doing exactly what he had been victim of. Bullying needs to be dealt with more comprehensively, and retaliation never solves anything.
11. Bullying is more of a senior school issue. Surprisingly it is most rampant in middle school. Classes ranging from 6-8 report the highest number of bullying cases.
That done, what then is bullying?
Is it just hitting? Or does it include public name-calling? What about the secret messages being passed around the class? How do we help children spot bullies, and know if they are being targeted? Well, in short, a bully is a person who:
1. Repeatedly hurts the child – emotionally or physically.
2. Deliberately makes the child feel uncomfortable, unwanted or inferior in any way.
3. Is spreading nasty rumours about the child. This could be offline, online or both.
4. Indulges in name-calling.
5. Sends threatening/abusive messages or mails.
What can we do?
All right, fine! Bullying is rampant and it happens to everybody. My child might have gone through it as well. There is nothing we can do. Or is there?
1. Communicate: No matter how drab it might be, listen to the detailed account of the day. Don’t stop at listening, ask questions and be interested. Get excited at that extra run he took. If you seem disinterested in the day-to-day conversation, you cannot expect them to come to you when something serious happens.
2. Accessories/ attires are functional: Most of us spend a good time dressing our toddlers up, and then suddenly when they are in their teens and overly bothered about their looks/attire – we blame it on hormones. Teach them to dress up well but not fuss over the colour of the frame, or the brand of the shoes. Yes, in the commercial, advertisement driven world today it is tough to do that, but children need to be taught to be free of these shackles. A child who is overly concerned about her looks is more likely to be targeted. On the other hand, when she is comfortable in her skin, people usually leave her alone.
3. Never take even the seemingly minor incidence lightly: Report to the school and then follow it up. Do not let the school play it down or make you look like a paranoid parent. You are very well within your right to protest and get yourself heard. Dealing with bullying has to be a collaborative effort, and parents cannot be held solely responsible.
4. Urge the school to hold classes/workshops to address the issue. A lot of times it has been found that children are not aware about what comprises bullying, when the joke stops being funny, and when they overstep boundaries. If the school doesn’t, we as parents need to tell them that. I was surprised the other day, when I found the boys giggling at a joke that the younger one shared – apparently they had nicknamed a boy Jumbo since he was obese.
‘That amounts to bullying.’ I stepped in.
Both of them said, ‘no, it doesn’t’ in unison.
‘And besides, Ma, he himself laughs it off.’
That was the time I sat them down and explained it. A lot of times, children laugh off the nicknames given to them to avoid further victimization or isolation. That doesn’t mean they like the joke. Ideally the school should also be holding sessions with the kids but then again, we can’t just shake our heads at their lack of involvement and turn away from our responsibility.
5. Accept the fact that it could swing either way. Recognize the signs. My child is as capable of being a bully as he is of being bullied. They need to be shown both sides of the coin and made aware of the consequences. Never assume that your angel-faced baby is not capable of hurting even a fly – trust me, he can accomplish much more. If you see unexplained injuries, sleep and eating disturbances, torn/damaged school supplies, dropping grades – raise a red flag; your child might be a victim.
On the other hand, if the child is being increasingly aggressive, ends up with unexplained new things/toys/money, blames others for everything, worries excessively about his social position in the class, gets overly competitive – you might want to make sure he/she isn’t bullying anyone.
6. Arm them . No not with semi-automatics – with oodles of confidence. A child who feels good about himself, and has a positive self-esteem, is less likely to be adversely affected by bullying. When I constantly tell my child what he is lacking, I am making his self-esteem shrink with every negative word. On the other hand, making him see what he is good at does more good. That obviously doesn’t imply that we ought to instill an exaggerated sense of self – just that we stick to positive criticism, and indulge in discussion rather than a monologue.
Also, encouraging a child to find something that interests him, and helps him discover his likes and talents, helps him become more confident and assertive and less susceptible to being victimized.
7. Never blame them. ‘So what did you do to annoy that child?’ ‘You must have done something that made them mad enough to hit you.’ – Throw these statements out of the parenting book. Always remember, it must’ve taken him immense courage to walk up to you and tell you. Now is not the time to tell him where he went wrong, or what he should have done. Now is the time to let him know that you are taking it very seriously, and that bullying is strictly unacceptable. Let him know that you are with him.
8. Urge them to help the others who get bullied. A bystander aids the bully. This doesn’t imply that the child should be taught to jump in a brawl. Encourage the child to be sympathetic to the victim – be friends with him, sit with him, and ask him to report the incident to a teacher/parent/coordinator/principal – whoever will listen. The idea is to not give up till someone listens.
8. Cyber bullying is a reality. Take one look at the various confessions pages of different schools on social networking sites and you would know. One look at the news, and the number of cyber-bullied kids astronomically pile up. Young children have no need to be online. For the older kids, be vigilant of the Internet usage, and install parental checks and filters.
9. If needed, get professional help. Never assume that children are always resilient. Sometimes they need help in dealing with the pain, shame, agony of having faced a bully, and going through hell at school. Be vigilant. If there are noticeable behavioural changes, or persistent reluctance to go to school after the incident that he reported, get help.
Simple words for my child, please!
That’s all good for me. But what do I tell my child? A preschooler, after all, probably doesn’t under stand phrases like, ‘be comfortable in your skin.’
A child can be told the following in simple, short, and easy to understand and remember sentences:
1. Calmly but firmly tell the bully to stop. Hold your hand out and ask them to stop. If humour is your thing, turn the joke around. Sometimes a firm protest is all it takes to discourage them.
2. Walk away. Get away from the situation and seek help from an adult. Go to a crowded area.
3. Don’t panic and carry on. Do not show that you are affected. The bully looks for signs that you are upset because that gives them the satisfaction of having some power over you.
4. Seek help from a teacher, a friend or a parent. Talk to them. Make them listen. Calmly report the incidence so that you are seriously heard.
5. Speak to other kids. Two or three kids are tougher to pick on when they are together. So speak out about the bully, band up and stay together.
6. Don’t carry unnecessary stuff to school. Gadgets, money, fancy stuff often attracts bullies. Don’t carry things you do not need to school.
This can in no way be considered a final, thorough list of things to do, look out for, or avoid. However, this can definitely be a starting point for making childhood what it should be – the most pleasant phase of a person’s life. Bullying ruins lives – it doesn’t matter if the bully is a pre-schooler or an eleventh grader. No one deserves to be degraded, humiliated, or made to felt weak or unworthy. It is time that we all took it seriously, and collaboratively address this issue rather than deny its existence or brush it under the carpet. It is time we stood by our child’s side.
originally posted at : Bullying – Time to Stop, Listen and Do.