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