As mom to an 11 year old boy barreling his way towards the teen years, I sometimes wonder (in the collision course of parenting, preteen rebellion, and life lessons) just who is teaching who. From his first kindergarten experience, throughout the entirety of his elementary school years, to his first almost completed year of middle school…he has shared a classroom with Ben (*name has been changed for obvious reasons), who has remained somewhat an outsider to his peers since taking his first step into elementary school. The beginning years were kinder. A time when innocent acceptance was the norm and kids were more focused on their similarities rather than their differences. But times change. Kids grow up. They begin asserting their independence and searching for their identities amid a sea of possibilities. Trying to “fit in” and avoid being singled out. This search for identity coupled with the need to belong leads to a survival of the fittest showdown. Who will make the cool cut? Who won’t? Bullies, on patrol looking a victim, troll the school for an ego to shred…in efforts to boost theirs. Sacrificing an easy target’s ego for their own.
It’s just recently that my son has entered the social battle field that is middle school.
In all of his 11 years, I’ve been persistent when it comes to compassion and empathy for others. Having seen, first hand, the short term and long term effects bullying has on a person’s self perception, and consequently, self destruction ~ I couldn’t bear the thought of a person I was responsible for ever having a hand in bringing that kind of misery and insecurity to a fellow human being. I pushed him regularly to see life through the eyes of someone other than himself. To be compassionate and empathetic. To be a friend, rather than a critic. So, in kindergarten, when he took notice of Ben’s challenges and befriended him, I couldn’t have been more proud. Becoming a safe place for Ben in a place where he didn’t quite fit in was so admirable, so simply and beautifully…human. He was doing exactly what I’d hoped he would. Accepting without judgment.
He was an inspiration to me, reminding me to practice what I preach. A daily reality check on my own reactions and feelings towards others.
Ben was crazy about him. Followed him everywhere. As time went on, Ben’s difficulties fitting in became more and more obvious. The other students were beginning to take notice. And they were much less compassionate and accepting. With our first year of middle school almost behind us, I began to notice he ~ who had always loved school and was riddled with stress at the thought of missing class ~ was asking to miss school, to stay home…day after day. He feigned the usual…a tummy ache, a headache, a muscle ache. But never a heartache, which I would soon discover was the culprit.
After my endless questioning about his sudden desire to miss school, he finally curled up beside me, broke down, cried, and begged me to stay home. He had confirmed my worst fears. He was being picked on, bullied. And for the very thing I had pushed him to do since he had entered school. For taking in the underdog. For not following the herd. For refusing to join the taunting and exclusion of a fellow student. He was being bullied by association. The other kids had succumbed to the need to fit in, set their sights on Ben’s weaknesses, and were descending on him like hungry wolves. Because Ben had found a safe place in him and clung to him for support, and because he couldn’t bear to hurt him by joining the taunting herd, he had become easy prey at Ben’s side. The pecking order establishment of his middle school years was in full swing. And his kindness was quickly sinking him straight down where the bottom feeders would peck away at him and dismantle his self confidence.
Always having guided him away from becoming the bully… it hadn’t really occurred to me that he may one day be the bullied.
He was crushed. I was crushed. He felt defeated. I felt guilty. After all, I was the one who had harped on the realities of what harsh words could do to a person’s spirit. And now, it was his spirit that was taking the beating. What could I do? An education in psychology, years of experience with children, past struggles as a parent…all left me helpless in the face of an untouchable bully who had targeted my son.
I wasn’t prepared to prepare him for psychological battle.
As his mom, my knee-jerk reaction was defense. I had to protect him, even if it meant forsaking another child. So, I found myself advising him to do the opposite of what I had told him for so many years. I told him to avoid Ben, who had depended on him since kindergarten as a friend. Not to join in on the bullying of him. But to look the other way. To abandon him when he needed him most. To distance himself from him in order to remove the target from his own back.
I cringed as the words escaped my mouth. Mortified at my own feelings. But this was my baby. And I had to do anything I could to keep his very delicate and developing self confidence intact. I knew that middle school was a dog eat dog world…
And I knew that if he carried around a bone, he would be eaten alive.
But his response was yet another thing I was ill-prepared for and left me ashamed and in tears. He looked me straight in the eye and said,
“But mom, if I don’t talk to him, no one else will. I don’t want him to be all alone.”
My heart broke…for the second time. The first time out of empathy for this chunk of my heart that was walking around outside my body. The second time as a result of clashing pride and regret.
How was it that he could be stronger than I in this scenario?
He had confided in me. Had I said the right thing? Advised the right thing? I still don’t know. But I do know that for the time being, he doesn’t feign illness to avoid school. His confidence is back, if only until the wolves descend again. I can only hope that I’m able to arm him with enough self confidence to fend them off.
Since then, his school principal has instituted a mandatory film for the entire school to watch. A film based on the real life struggles of a young boy who was bullied, how he had become desperate enough to physically hurt himself, and how the bullies dealt with the guilt of what their actions had done to another human being. That film had a huge impact on my son. He cried recalling the details to me. I could not be more proud of the middle school we call our academic home ~ for their proactive efforts in exposing and educating young children on the realities of bullying. Preteen and teen children are naturally inept at seeing things from another person’s perspective. Especially a person with whom they have nothing in common.
But the parents, the schools, and the media are finally saying “no more.” No more sweeping this issue under the rug. No more making excuses for our youth. No more allowing our children to suffer in silence. We’re uniting for the sake of young innocence, for the sake of broken spirits, and for the sake of missed opportunities for those who have resorted to taking their own lives to escape the mental torment.
For the first time, we’re forcing kids to look at bullying through the eyes of both the bully and the bullied. For the first time, we’re holding kids accountable for the cruelty they impose on a weaker peer. For the first time, we’re holding ourselves accountable for allowing it to happen as we look the other way. And for the first time ~ hopefully ~ we can find the courage and the leadership as adults to stop the cruelty and teach compassion.
I taught my son compassion. But in the face of the bully when the cost became too great, I retreated…
And he taught me that compassion doesn’t come cheap. And that sometimes, with matters of the heart, we adults have more to learn from children than they do from us.
The movie Bully opens in theaters on March 30. If you have children in or approaching the very difficult years of middle school or high school, take the time to see it with them. It could change, or save, a life.