When my first boy was ready for kindergarten, I was worried.
My sweet, bespectacled, 5-year-old absent-minded professor was always lost in his own thoughts. He is a different boy. How would he fare in a class with others? Wasn’t he, with his cerebral attitudes and his extensive vocabulary, the perfect target for the schoolyard bully?
Would he be safe?
OK, the school didn’t even have a schoolyard, it had a parking lot. But I didn’t say I was being rational.
My dear grandmother told me: "He will be fine. This boy knows who he is." She was right. In fact, his self-absorbed passions were the perfect shields. When he was questioned about his glasses, he answered everyone in a very factual manner, parroting what the doctor had told him, almost word for word. Wanna silence a kindergartner looking for a tussle? Throw out the word amblyopia. Instant retreat.
My boy did well. And I watched. Once, there was a problem. To some, it might have seemed no big deal. It was just a name. It wasn’t that bad a name, either:four-eyes. After all, he did have glasses, didn’t he? It’s part of what they go through while growing up, right? Isn’t it how they learn?
"I’ll tell you what I have learned," said Anne Parry, director of the Office of Violence Prevention for the Chicago Department of Public Health. "We all have learned a lot of inappropriate and unkind ways to treat one another—and unwittingly we are passing this on to children."
Parry is not only an expert on bullying and how it affects us, she is an expert on people.
During a recent talk to parents, Parry explained this is not just a phase.
"I know some of you are sitting there saying, ‘What is the big deal here? I grew up with it. I was bullied. I’m OK. I’m a good person. If we just leave it alone, all will be well. Don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill.’
"But bullying is a form of violence and abuse and it is a big deal."
"The latest research is showing that 3- and 4-year-olds are engaged in bullying," Parry said. "It is not limited to one age group. And it is not limited to one gender."
One survey done by the American Association of University Women of children ages 8-11 found 85 percent of the girls and 76 percent of the boys reported that they had experienced some type of harrassment.
Children bully because they can; and any parent knows if children think they can get away with something, they will always be testing to see just how far they can push it.
So, Parry sees a connection between bullying, family violence, suicide, homicide and rape.
"The level of risk for our kids today has risen through the roofs. And the rules of the road for how we treat each other have changed as well. ...
"And if we do not nip bullying in the bud in elementary school, we are leaving our children open to much greater risks."
There is direct bullying: teasing, taunting, threatening, hitting and stealing. And there is indirect bullying: intentional exclusion, rumor spreading and enforced social isolation—"We won’t play with you, you are too fat."
And bullying thrives for two reasons:
Adults tolerate it. "It’s not nice but there’s not much we can do."
And sometimes, adults even encourage it. "He hit you? Then, hit him back harder."
We blame others. We justify it. We rationalize it. We deny it. We minimize it. And we avoid recognizing the problem at all.
What can parents do?
It’s as simple and as complicated as this: You have to decide you will not tolerate it any longer.
Everyone has to make the decision—parents, administrators, teachers and kids. And then we have to work at what we are going to do—together.
It can’t be about one incident, one bad boy, one reluctant teacher, one absent parent, it has to be about changing what we accept and tolerate, Parry said.
Remember that old saying—children learn what they are taught? Well, we have to teach them empathy and compassion.
Parry recommended a school-wide bullying policy that explains bullying will not be tolerated by anyone, regardless of age, gender or position. This takes time, reflection and most important, talk.
We have to talk about bullying. Children need to know that the adults around them are worried about the problems they have, and not minimizing them.
When my son was called "four eyes," both the teacher and the principal thought it was nothing. Clearly, I was a hysterical mother. "This is your first child, right?"
But after talk, said Parry, children must see action, as well. So, I called in the cavalry to that kindergarten class. One of the wonderful medical schools in town sent several students from the ophthalmology department to talk about eyes. They brought glasses to try on, pictures to color and games to play. My boy stood up in front of the class and the kids were fascinated. To this day, my boy remembers it as a great moment.
Our next move? When kindergarten was over—we left the school.
"If our children were touched inappropriately, we wouldn’t tell them, ‘You’re fine, just handle it,’ " said Parry. "Children have rights. They have the right to have adults respond to them with consistenty and respect. They have a right not to be bullied."