Lacey Byrne, Yellowbrick Staff Writer
Keaton Jones’ plea to his mom last week was heartbreaking. I imagine that any parent who watched this video wanted to put their arms around this little boy and hold him tightly.
As parents, we want to protect our children from hurt feelings, mean friends, and untenable situations. We send them to school and cross our fingers, hoping that our children won’t be the target of others’ teasing or bullying.
For the past three years my oldest daughter has experienced various conflicts with friends. All of the scenarios she described to me were mild and sounded like peers trying to get along or figure out ‘social swimming’ a term used by Irene van der Zande, founder and executive director of Kidpower.
Two weeks ago, my daughter was having trouble with a girl in the other fourth grade class. I wouldn’t describe it as bullying, so much as two people irritating and misunderstanding each other and not knowing how to ignore the other. I had met this young girl over the summer along with her mom and her little brother. She and my daughter played at the local town beach and when I saw the mom at school events, she seemed pretty cool and normal. So, it surprised me that there was a conflict. I didn’t know what to do when my daughter came off the bus sobbing at the end of the week, after a story each day about playground and lunchroom name calling.
But here’s the remarkable thing that happened. The mother of this young girl looked up my number in the school directory, sent me a text that was very neutral and non-accusatory. She suggested that perhaps her daughter and mine just don’t know each other well enough and asked if my daughter would like to come over after school to play. I felt relief and a lot of respect for this mother.
After reading about Keaton Jones and seeing the tremendous outpouring of responses I asked myself what can be done. There have been plenty of stories like his, and more will follow. As a culture, we have been given a multitude of lessons from which to learn about bullying, ranging from tortured children, suicide, and extreme violence at the hands of bullied children. Bullying prevention projects, campaigns and policies at schools are ubiquitous. Have they worked?
I kept thinking of the simple text outreach from the mother of my daughter’s schoolmate. Imagine if we made it our business to know all the families in our child’s class. Or at least enough of them to feel we had a little army on our side. If we showed up at school functions and said hello to fellow parents and their kids, getting to know their names and a little bit about them, might we have a better chance at helping to curb bullying in our community?
It seems as though there are a lot of programs that focus on teaching kids to stand up to bullies or teaching kids how not to bully. If we consider that kids who bully are typically misusing power or projecting their own feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness, and anxiety from their home lives, then how can we expect them to choose otherwise?
Why are we putting so much responsibility on children to deter violence?
It’s our job as adults to get more involved and stand up for these kids. If parents of a child who is being harassed, teased or bullied reached out to the culprit’s parent and asked to get together to hang out, might we decrease the incidence of bullying? If we developed a sense of community in our schools, and it became apparent that the one kid who is causing so much grief on the playground lives in a household with a lot going on, what would happen if a few parents reached out to that household and offered support? This sounds very utopian, I know. And, of course, reaching out to parents can result in being on the receiving end of shouting, name-calling and accusations. But I like to think that for every mom who might yell at you for asking if her child and yours might resolve their conflict by hanging out, there will be plenty of parents who go for it.
I feel as though we need to shift our thinking and behavior in our school communities. If there was more focus on opportunities for parents and families to get to know one another, a lot of things might change. Of course, this is easier said than done and each community is different. I live in a small town, so for me to learn all the kids’ names in the 4th grade requires me to learn only 32 names. Some schools have 32 kids in one of many classes in a single grade.
Let’s start small and see what results. This will mean something different for every parent and every school community. Start with your child’s classroom. Arrange a few play dates with one or two kids. Schools have directories and classroom group emails and Facebook pages, so it’s easy to post a suggestion of, “Let’s all meet at the local park Saturday at two for some pick-up soccer,” to your child’s classroom.
Instead of hugging the wall at the next school function which, admittedly, CAN be boring, make it your business to get to know as many parents as possible. It might not be your thing, and you might not be looking for new friends, but if you think about those parent connections as potential bullying deterrents, you might be more likely to break the ice.
My daughter’s play date is next week and there is also an upcoming school winter concert. I’m going to make it a point to meet some parents while we sit listening to our children squeak out “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.” I’ll let you know how it goes.
– Lacey Byrne, Yellowbrick Staff Writer