Every time I read a post about mean kids and bullies I want to proudly declare my kids always stand up to the mean kids. But always isn’t accurate. And frankly, it’s not realistic.
I realize that statement sounds horrific and half of you stopped reading (and likely started irately commenting) but hear me out. Because none of us have a perfect kindness record.
While I want my girls to always do the right thing, even when the right thing is the hard thing, sometimes they choose not to. And I get it.
Yes, I get it.
Because I was a kid once. While I had a strong desire to be kind, my 13-year old self had a stronger desire to fit in. The author of Wonder (must read book) sums it up perfectly:
What character do you identify with the most or is the most like you?
I wish I could say I was most like Summer, but that wouldn’t be true. I try to be more like her every day, though. ..But the character I identify the most with as a girl, or who represents what I might have been like if a kid like Auggie came to my school, is Charlotte. I think a lot of kids can relate to Charlotte. She’s nice enough, but she never really goes out of her way to be kind to Auggie. She’ll wave hello from a distance, but she never sits down with him. She helps Jack behind the scenes, but she never openly sides with him. She’s a good girl, but she’s not quite brave enough to act on her good instincts. That kind of bravery sometimes doesn’t come until you’re older, and sometimes doesn’t come at all. She represents the difference between simply being nice, and choosing to be kind, which is a main theme of the book. She’s the classic bystander, though I think by the end of the book she’s become aware of this. Her precept shows this. I think in the sixth grade, she’ll be an upstander, not a bystander.
In 7th grade my “friends” had an amazing (sarcasm) game of social isolation where every week someone in the group was iced out. Somehow I was the person that was most frequently iced out. So you’d think when it was someone else’s turn I would speak out or at least go hang out with the friend that was being isolated.
But I didn’t. Because it was freaking SCARY.
Here’s another thing I inwardly retaliate against: the idea that all rude, mean, and bullying behavior (do you know the difference?) starts at home. Whenever I read a post that includes some form of “well she learned it somewhere, must have started at home” I think that maybe it didn’t.
You read that right: I don’t believe that all bullying starts at home. I also don’t dare to utter those words out loud, or even more daring, print them in response to a FB post (yep, still trying to fit in).
How could I think such a thing? I try to assume some positive intent, especially when kids are involved. Sometimes the meanness is superficial oversight. Sometimes it’s a momentary lack of empathy. Sometimes people make a bad on-the-spot-decision. Yet other times the person is simply an asshole.
It’s really hard to know what motivated the behavior or where it was learned so I don’t want to pass judgment (which doesn’t mean I don’t pass judgment, just that I try not to!). And I especially want to be fair because I’d want that treatment if it were my girls accused of bullying.
Which could happen as accounted for in this powerful narrative of a kind, thoughtful mom who discovered her worst nightmare: it was her kid that was the bully.
Which is all to say, again, I get it when kids are bystanders instead of upstanders.
When I talk to my kids about another kid who is left out, picked on, called names, or worse, I understand when they respond with hesitation. I coach them, guide them, and question them…using all of my best techniques to get them to stand up to that mean kid but in the end I know I made the same choice over and over again.
Even as an adult I sometimes slip into this old habit. I get caught up in the scene, worry that I’ll make waves, and watch someone else’s misery unfold. A friend of mine summed it up perfectly, “we have too many bystanders, myself included. I speak out, but not too loudly because I just want to exist in peace.”
(BTW, this statement is hilarious because one of the things I admire most about this friend is that she seems to always speak out, loudly, without a care of who disagrees, at the most meaningful moments.)
There are certain situations I expect any human being to get involved in no matter their age. If anyone witnesses another person being taunted, harassed, isolated, discriminated against or pushed around, they should help. Period. If my girls told me they saw this behavior and said nothing I would be so vocal you might even hear me from wherever you live.
What I really want to figure out is how to help my kids feel comfortable standing up for themselves and others. How to do this in a way that is authentic to them. How to acknowledge their discomfort and help them work through it. How to help them be kind and confident in their response. How to get them to do what’s right more often and more vocally. How to teach them without telling them so it becomes instinct.
Back to the original question, “Why don’t more kids stand up to bullies?” My answer stands: there are a lot of reasons. Let’s take time to understand the reasons so we can guide our kids more often for better results. Let’s be realistic about what’s possible, when.
And let’s keep talking about it. Right here. Right now.