When my boys were in elementary school, there was no word more villainous than “bully”. It was disgraceful to be seen as a bully. They were the criminals of the school. Around that time, I remember explaining to my own children that some of my CDs were stolen on a particularly unlucky day, and the immediate response from my then six-year-old was, “Did a bully do it mom?” I loved that their elementary school was able to make the kids feel like a bully was something they’d never want to be. Back then, it seemed so simple. A person was a bully or not. There was no gray area, only black and white. However, as a teacher and a mom, I know there are many sides to this topic.
When Is It Bullying?
I think most of us can agree that not every bad experience with another human is bullying. Peers are going to have disagreements. They are going to have times when they throw a dirty look around or get upset at each other. Friendships will begin and end and our children will learn major life skills in the process. Parents can best support their children by talking them through the scenario and helping them work through their own disagreements. By assuming each argument is bullying, we come dangerously close to watering down that term. Our children will have conflicts, and our job as parents is to provide them with coping skills so that they can deal. A cold shoulder from a friend, a disagreement on the playground, and a misunderstanding during practice are all specific incidents. However, real bullying is different. It is continuous mistreatment and it can take on many forms. Physically, mentally, and emotionally damaging, real bullying is incredibly dangerous. The difference between these two definitions is important to all stakeholders.
Bullying Has Changed
It’s no secret that bullying has changed. Back in the 80s and 90s, if a person was mistreated at school, in the locker room, or on the bus, he or she could usually count on it ending by dinner time where the safety net of family intervened. The bullying scene has changed, because often kids who are being mistreated have a digital log of abuse. This kind of bullying is incredibly relentless because the aggressors have the ability to spread mean stories, damaging screenshots, or harmful words to thousands of people within seconds. When I think about the world our kids are dealing with digitally, I’m relieved I never had to live it, but that also means I have to gain a whole new skill set as a parent. I’m determined to give my kids the best coping abilities I can.
It is important to explain to them the power and responsibility that comes with owning a cell phone. It has very little to do with keeping the device itself safe and everything to do with digital etiquette. My twelve-year-old son has a phone. I check his text messages, peruse his Instagram, and I have very candid conversations with him regarding this device. I remind him that what he does online will follow him forever. It may not be fair, but it’s true, and that’s the world we live in. I also remind him that I do check his text messages. He has what I call “phone training wheels” right now. When I feel like he can stand up on two wheels, so to speak, I’ll ease up on the helicopter parenting, but he has too much to lose for me to be blasé about what happens on his phone. So far, he has been responsible and aware. I can only hope it continues.
Teach them to be Upstanders
There are many ways to address the topic of bullying with young people. Whether it is different or the same as when parents were in school, one common element that transcends generations is the ability our children have to be “upstanders”. Upstanders are people who speak up when someone is being mistreated, online or in person. They can speak up to the bully or they can tell an adult. When our kids get into middle school, bullies are no longer faceless villains. They have names and faces, and this is when it becomes dangerous. In my 9th grade classroom, we talk openly about the bully/bystander/upstander psychology. We typically center these discussions around certain novels during my English classes, which lead to better learning and incredible conversations about the topic. We study Shattering Glass by Gail Giles and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson; we study articles of how other schools deal with bullying; we discuss our own experiences; we have studied the documentary Bully in previous years. After our unit study of fiction and nonfiction literature, we have many conversations about what little difference there is between a bystander and a bully. How research shows that one person speaking up for another can make a huge difference in terminating the mistreatment. What’s heartbreaking is that most all of my students have examples of tough situations with peers in their lives, but what is refreshing is their ability to verbalize what it means to be an upstander, and how being a bystander is essentially aiding in bullying.
The good news is that there our schools across the nation working hard to put an end to bullying. Kelly’s school has an amazing support system for students when it comes to specific incidents or full fledged bullying. At my high school, we work diligently to make sure kids feel safe, and I have many professional colleagues around the city who are working to spread kindness so that no one feels the need to mistreat another. Check out Ferial Pearson’s book The Secret Agents of Kindness, and read how certain acts of love can energize a community and positively affect lives. See her inspirational TEDx Talk here. You can also find information on this movement on the Facebook page here
By creating a culture of upstanding citizens, we really have an opportunity for our kids to realize that we are all responsible to each other, simply because we are all human. Life can be so fun. Damage does not have to breed damage. There are so many resources parents can find to help them initiate these conversations at home to encourage kids to become upstanders.
How do you address bullying and cyber responsibility in your home? We’d love to hear it. See valuable resources listed below. Thank you for reading!
DoSomething.org: Adults and kids alike can create change in their communities.
The Bully Project on Facebook: The Facebook page linked with the moving documentary Bully.
Cyberbullying.gov: This is a very comprehensive site addressing all types of bullying, specifically cyber.
Bullybust.org: Here kids can find a list of ten ways they can be upstanders.