Bullying is not new. Though schools, especially the most elite and possibly envied, are currently being pilloried for their handling of this terrible plague, it’s been around forever. The Egyptians bullied the Israelites. The Assyrians bullied most of the Mesopotamian River Valley. The Romans rode roughshod over the Greeks, who had just pushed their way around most of the civilized world. The Catholics weren’t very nice to the Moors, especially during the Inquisition. But Protestants were equally hard on Catholics during the Reformation. The British treated the Irish like vermin. Europeans treated Native Americans like non-humans. The Germans treated the French and British, along with most of western Europe, the same way. Don’t even get me started on the Middle East, Southeast Asia or the Far East. Everyone seems to have blood on his hands, at least, historically. There seems to be no obvious answer. Even Jesus died at the hands of bullies. The big question is, why didn’t anyone jump in?
We all think we’d do a better job than Peter, who infamously denied his Lord three times “before the cock crowed,” as predicted, just hours after defending Jesus by cutting off the ear of the Roman soldier trying to arrest him. We may be smug in the knowledge that we have never actively bullied anyone. But its hard to believe we didn’t support it, in one form or another, along the way. As both a mother and a teacher, I’ve seen evidence of bullying on a daily basis. The surprising part is how much of it emanated from the adults. My bully radar was always sensitively tuned. Raised by two very different people — a Marine officer and a gentle, and genteel, mother — I still feel their united passion in lessons of inclusion. Though they did not share the same religion, their values lined up in perfect sync. Nothing lit my parents up faster then someone being selfish, whether with one’s toys or inclusion into a game. It was not tolerated. Period. With five kids, they had plenty of opportunities to teach and reinforce this lesson. But I sometimes wonder how the majority of people were raised. Parents today seem to be as eager to belong to the “in crowd,” sometimes even more so, than their children. Whether standing in the circle waiting to pick up kids from school or watching sports, I have seen the social dances. It strikes me as pathetic.
There are things we can do to change this. As a teacher, I almost never let my (middle and high school) students choose their own groups. I would call out “random numbers” that I’d carefully chosen ahead of time to ensure the mix of each project or activity group. I’d pull more alpha students aside and ask them to take shy kids under their wings or to invite less confident students to sit with them at lunch, etc. It didn’t take much and I never had a student let me down. That is why I am convinced that these behaviors have to be nipped in the bud at the parent-teacher level first. We have to educate the adults. Kids will follow suit. As parents, we should be doing the same thing. Parental exclusion goes on all the time. Whether by having a birthday party for one’s child, and only inviting a few kids from the class (knowing that the same few seem to get invited to every party) or by only engaging the parents who could best promote your kids’ agendas, most otherwise good people have participated in some form of bullying.
My challenge as a mother was to raise the most inclusive kids possible in a society that strictly adheres to unwritten rules of exclusion. From the beginning, with each of our kids, we invited every child in the class of the same gender to each birthday party, despite the well intentioned phone calls from parents who felt the need to explain that “this child usually is not invited for that reason” or “these two groups don’t get along, usually.” In 27 years or parenting, we never had one problem with a child at any of their parties. Parties don’t have to be expensive. Kids were happy with a piece of cake, a few games and a goodie bag. I still remember a party that probably cost less than a regular family supper.
Our son had the boys over for an all-farm game of FLAG. After the game, the boys made their own mini pizzas, enjoyed some cake, and then the ones who brought presents gave them to be opened. The others gave cards. In rural Vermont, there are many who cannot afford presents, so we always wrote on the invitations “homemade cards are a favorite gift.” Even 12-year-old boys appreciated each other’s humor and compliments, expressed with original art. We still have a box of those somewhere and the nice things kids wrote have been remembered long after the expensive gifts disappeared. Another favorite party happened accidentally. When a surprise ice storm wrecked plans for a sledding party, I came up with an Oprah Winfrey show. OK, yes, I was desperate! The kids gathered on our couches and I sat by the hearth and let the birthday boy “interview” each guest. Each one got to share his favorite color, food, sport, hobby and say what he wanted to be when he grew up. I still remember being shocked that the little tough guy in the group loved dolphins and wanted to train them when he was an adult. I think it was a real breakthrough for this boy. He softened up when he saw how receptive his mates were to his thoughts. The kids were allowed to ask each other questions and they didn’t want to stop for an “official” game. Cost: nothing.
The payback for this inclusion was sometimes an automatic exclusion from future invitations to the more exclusive parties/playdates. I have even sat over a cup of tea with a few patronizing mothers, who felt it their duty to explain to me how the world works when it comes to children’s social stratification. They wanted to include my children, you see, it was just the rubbing of elbows with those others that bothered them. Surely I understood why Johnny would be inappropriate guests at the event? (Have you seen his father’s girlfriend?) I guess I never saw it that way. This was not an isolated experience with one group of people. Our kids are 5 years apart, two boys and a girl, who grew up in both rural northern Vermont and affluent Middlesex County, and this phenomenon was universal. As a teacher, this was felt instinctively. There is still nothing more nauseating to me than to see a teacher fawn over a student with high-status parents, while being dismissive of a less well connected child. But parents do it, too. It’s our job to model the kind of behavior we want our kids to demonstrate. One thing Mike and I have learned, as parents, is that none of us is immune. We are all one phone call away from the same disasters as every other parent. Its humbling. Sometimes there is nothing anyone can do. Good kids sometimes make poor decisions. But each of us can make bullying — whether by overtly running down another parent, or covertly, by simply ostracizing someone — a thing of the past. Perhaps we can’t unite Israel and Palestine, but surely we can be kind to one another in the parking lot or at the soccer game. Maybe it will rub off.
Kristin Anderson and her husband, Mike, left Groton in the 1980’s to raise their family in Vermont. Though briefly back in town recently, so their daughter could attend Groton School, they returned to the north country, where Kristin teaches high school Humanities and writes free lance.