Bullies and Kids: How Do You Respond?

I got a message on Twitter the other day from a mother, asking if I had any father’s advice for her about a bullying issue that her young child had to deal with in school. She mentioned that her husband was currently deployed, so she was reaching out to me, as she felt that I had ‘great insight’. While I was flattered that she felt that way, I wasn’t sure that what I could add to the situation would be helpful.

But I went ahead and tried to answer her, and in doing so, I realized that bullying wasn’t something I’ve written about yet. My children haven’t experienced this, perhaps because we homeschool, but I did have to deal with it both as a child and an adult, so I’d like to briefly explore the topic here, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it as well.

Here was her question:

“My 6 year old got into a fist fight at school today. He got punched on the mouth then punched the kid in the eye. I am trying to figure out how to handle it. Do I make a big deal or not?”

And my answer:

“If he got hit first and was just defending himself, I think not a big deal, but worth a discussion about how violence doesn’t solve problems. But I truly believe that we always need to defend ourselves and stand tall. But at age 6, they may not really understand the difference between standing up for yourself and sinking to another’s level. Running to the teacher might be seen as tattling, which is a no-no for most of us. If it’s a bully, then standing up for your self generally is the best thing. It’s a hard thing to deal with. If we run away, it never ends. I’m a non-violent person, but believe in defending myself and my family/friends.”

What do you think? Do we teach our kids to strike back when attacked?

Some background on my bullying experiences:

When I was a young boy (in fourth grade), I got accosted on the way home from school by a bully who was several years older, and much bigger, than I was. Even worse (for a guy), was that the bully was a girl. After being verbally bullied (and not responding), I was pushed to the ground, sat on, and slapped in the face. In order for her to leave me alone, I had to cry ‘Uncle’, and say that she was tougher than I was. Which I did, and then ran all the way home. I don’t remember telling my parents about it, probably because I was humiliated by the experience.

For a long time after that, I had a lot of anxiety or fear about confrontation, and would take a different way home each time, trying to avoid this person (although I never saw her again). And I believe that because I was afraid to stand up for myself, I suffered unnecessarily.

As I got older, I was determined to not have that happen to me again – to give away my power out of fear. And I had plenty of chances to test myself over the years. I learned to not back down or to run away, to use my words to change the situation. If that didn’t work, I wouldn’t ever throw the first punch, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to let myself be pummeled without defending myself.

And the funny thing is, as soon as I fought back, I won. Maybe I didn’t physically win the fight, but I walked away feeling like a winner – someone who wouldn’t let himself get walked all over or pushed around. And yes, sometimes I was on the receiving end of some physical punishment from the bully because of it, but that didn’t matter to me. I had stood up for myself.

Another lesson I learned from these experiences is the power of standing up for someone else, especially when they won’t do it for themselves. At one point, a member of the school’s ‘in-crowd’ thought he could intimidate a friend of mine every day after gym class, because he had the blessing of his jock friends. One day, I decided that I had seen enough, and I stepped in between them, looked the bully in the eye, and asked him if he thought he was a big man because he could harass a younger, smaller, guy who wouldn’t ever speak up for himself.

The look on this kid’s face was priceless – he had lost his edge, because someone stood up to him, and you could almost see his ego deflating. The rest of the day, I was in fear for myself, as I knew I had made myself a target for this guy. And as a typical bully does, he blindsided me – came up behind me and shoved my head into the wall of lockers. As he ran off, I yelled after him “Hey big man, come back here and do that again, you coward!” But he just kept running, and never tried to bully any of us again. So I traded a lump on the head for freedom from a bully, and it was so worth it.

I’ve since learned that taking a dominant stance, looking the bully in the eye, speaking my mind, and not letting fear get the best of me, will deflect most confrontations. Bullies are opportunists, not willing to make the effort to scare someone who isn’t already afraid, and in most cases, will walk away at the first sign of resistance.

Have you experienced bullying? Or your kids? How did you deal with it?

Image: trix0r at Flickr

Derek Markham

Things I dig include: simple living, natural fatherhood, attachment parenting, natural building, unassisted childbirth (homebirth), bicycles, permaculture, organic and biodynamic gardening, vegan peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips, bouldering, and the blues. Find me elsewhere at @NaturalPapa, @DerekMarkham, Google+, or RebelMouse.

7 thoughts on “Bullies and Kids: How Do You Respond?

  • I got my kids into Krav Maga. It is a great way to give them training so that feel comfortable and confident about taking care of themselves.

    They teach them not just to defend themselves but how to deal with bullies and strangers.

    FWIW, I am not an advocate of fighting, but if there is no choice I haven’t any issue with it. I am not a turn the cheek kind of guy. Avoid it if you can, but when you can’t hit harder than the other guy.
    .-= Jack´s last blog ..Somebody To Love =-.

    • Derek Markham

      Jack – That sounds like a good plan, getting your kids into a teaching situation where they can learn how to deal with bullies. And I’m totally with you – if there is no choice, we do what we need to do.

  • Dear Derek
    At Parentology we believe, first of all we should not label any body. The kids who use bullying have some needs that they are not met at home. Most probably they are being disempowered or some how verbally or physically abused. So we should have compassion for them too as they are hurting too. All we have to do is to keep educating parents not to smack their children and start listening to their children.
    Secondly I totally agree with you. “If there is no victim then there is no abuser”. If we keep very close relationship with our children through deep listening and emotional intelligence, also keep empowering them including in our relationship. This will create intimate, trusted and bonded relationships between us and our children. Even if they feel humiliated because we process those emotions with them rather then fixing them, they will come and tell us that sort of stuff. And if they are mostly empowered they will stand up for themselves. But if we get our children to submit all the time, they may submit to an abuser like that too.
    This is actually such a long topic and so many skills involved and I just tried to address it in a nut shell, I hope it is helpful. I am curious about your thoughts now.
    Warm Regards
    Gonan Premfors

    • Derek Markham

      Gonan – As an adult, I can understand and agree with your first point, but as a kid, I don’t think there’s any way I would have understood that (probably). But you’re right, in that those kids were taught, either directly or indirectly, to act out in that way. And the idea that “If there is no victim, then there is no abuser” has really broad ramifications in our world, as far as empowering us to take action and stand tall in the face of oppression or aggression. It’s definitely a topic for further exploration and discussion.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • Dear Derek
        I cannot agree more. As a child you cannot see that.

        As parents and adults we really need to work on eliminating the victimhood in order to eliminate the scenario of bullying. I think we can do this by two ways, by empowering our children and even letting them to say no to us if something is not working for them and be respectful about it. That also does not mean that they get away with everything. the solutions have to be co-created. I have a blog post about this if you like please read and comment.
        Secondly we need to educate other parents to not to victimize their children. I feel a lot for those children too. For them, this is the only way that they can be seen, heard and given power to.
        Thank you for writing this blog.
        .-= Gonan Premfors´s last blog ..Correcting our Children’s Behaviors =-.

  • I’ve had experiences of being a victim of verbal bullying. I’m a girl so when I was a kid, beating each other up wasn’t the answer, but torturing each other seemed to be. It took until I was an adult to finally get up the courage to let one lifetime bully have it. It was a relationship that should have ended when we were 8, but lasted 20 more years. It’s been years now since that and I’m so glad to have let it go. Just wish I had gotten some better advice sooner.

  • You do your best to raise a moral kid, a kid with empathy, a kid who can pause to consider consequences before they take action. And you also teach them that sometimes, backing down isn’t an option, and there are things worth fighting for. And then you teach them HOW to fight.
    Violence is a poor way to resolve normal conflicts. But its a powerful and effective tool to keep in reserve when you need it.


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