This morning I sent my oldest off on his first overnight field trip. I did so with much angst and trepidation because my son has a bully and that bully is going on this trip. They are in the same field group and bunking in the same cabin. My husband and I called the school and expressed our concerns, and while they tried to assure us that they will keep a close eye on the situation....still. It's my kid.
This kid has singled out my son to verbally bully, most likely because he's the new kid. His favorite insult is to call my son, whose name is William, "Richard"-- despite being corrected repeatedly. Now, in case you are not up on modern, vulgar insults, calling someone "Richard" is a sort of PC way to call them a certain male body part. This kid is probably the only one in the 5th grade who knows exactly what that means, (except my son, who I explained it to....that was an awkward conversation). He spits out the name Richard at my son and then laughs at his own inside joke. The other kids in the class, not being in on the joke, would call my son Richard because they thought that was his name. When I heard about this, I wanted very badly to march up to the school and give this kid a verbal smack down. When I was younger, I could deliver an insult fast enough to make a bully's head spin. I chewed kids like this up and spit them out. But, I figured that it would be of no help to my kid's playground cred if his momma fought his battles for him. We chose the high road and told him to ignore it, thinking that it would eventually stop since he was getting a reaction.
But when the list of cabin and group assignments came home, my son was disappointed to see this kid on his list, and we found out that now, in the 10th week of school, this was still going on. We called the principle and had a conference expressing our concerns. She assured us that she would put this behavior on everyone's radar, and that it would not be a problem on the trip.
Bullies piss me off. This was my family's first brush with a bully, but I have many friends who deal with them on a regular basis.
About 2 years ago, I made a conscious effort to eliminate the word "retard" from my vernacular. I had used it, not in a cruel way, to address my friends when they did something that was stupid. A great blogger friend of mine, Jen over at Down Wit Dat, had written a piece that I don't really remember much about except that it was about ending the "R Word." See, Jen is the proud mother of twins -- one who has Down's Syndrome, one that does not, and both perfect. I put myself in her shoes: hearing the R-word thrown around, as a joke mostly, and knowing that until relatively recently, "Retarded" was an acceptable medical term for anyone who had a developmental problem of any kind. People like her son. People who could be insulted, hurt, or otherwise adversely effected by what I now see as a derogatory term.
And I was making light of it. I realized how, as a mother, I would feel if someone called my kid retarded. I imagined how I would feel if my child had some type of delay, or impairment, and they were labeled as a retard. I realized that it would both hurt and piss me off, so I fought the habit and eventually beat it.
Less advanced, esp. mentally, than is usual for one's age. Synonyms: backward - delayed
A few weeks ago, I had a late night phone call from a friend who's child has a physical abnormality. She was born with Spina Bifida -- but it was a closed neural defect. It does not effect her child's mental capacity (this child is BRILLIANT), and it has not had an adverse effect on her outlook on life. She is beautiful, smart, funny, and especially POSITIVE. What a testament to the parents -- a child, who has every reason to be pissed at everything and everyone, has decided instead to be a positive force in the world. She raises money for research, she speaks openly about her condition to educate others, and she "owns it" -- it does NOT own her. But she is approaching adolescence. And while those kids who started elementary school with her years ago "get" her and understand her, upper classes are larger. New kids are coming in who don't know her or her story. This kid welcomes questions. She will gladly explain her condition to anyone who wants to know about it. Unfortunately, that isn't what happened to her on the bus the day of my friend's call.
A kid who does not know her, asked her what was wrong with her back. When she told her that she was born with Spina Bifida, the kid told her "I don't care. It's weird." Until that moment, no one had ever blatantly pointed out that her condition made her "weird." Now, this may seem like a minor thing, but it isn't. As my friend, her mother, was sobbing on the phone, all I could think was that I wanted to slap someone (and not the kid).
Kids are kids --they blurt crap out without thinking. (My own daughter once asked a black waiter at IHOP if he was chocolate and if she could lick him. You can read that here:"I Love You -- Chocolate Is My Favorite!") When it is innocent, it can be funny, I'll admit it. But when you are talking about a middle school age kid, then calling someone "weird" or "strange" or "retarded" is not an innocent slip. It isn't because they don't have a filter. It is because you have missed an opportunity as a parent to impress upon them the importance of being kind to others.
That may seem harsh, but where else would a teenager (or pre-teen) get the idea that it is okay to single out another kid for their differences? To wrinkle their nose and say it's weird? You cannot tell me that it is from TV or movies, because as a society we have gotten so completely politically correct and bully-conscious that any kid behaving in such a way on a television show these days would be the object of a moral lesson. Some say they get it from other kids. Well, what a way to pass the buck. As a parent, you are responsible for your kid's actions and you should know who they are hanging out with. Regardless of what their friends do, your kids are still responsible for their own actions and it is our responsibility as parents to make sure that they know that.
Now, kids will tease each other -- that will always happen. That is why we were very careful about naming our kids -- we didn't want a "Smelly Shelley" or a "Silly Billy" or much worse. But I am not talking about the silly name calling you might hear on the elementary school playground. I am talking about what happens when we as parents do not address those names our kids laugh at when they are 4, or 5, or 6 years old. My kids tease each other all of the time. They gang up against each other, they call each other names and they love each other. But when we witness these little spats between them, my husband and I are quick to point out that things are different with your siblings in your house than they are with your friends or your classmates at school. If we ever heard them being like that with other kids, they know that there would be a problem.
One reason that bullying happens is because we are not candid with our kids about disabilities and birth defects. If you do not educate yourself about these things and then educate your kids about them, then they will make light of what they do not understand. Or they will go all "Lord of The Flies" and attack what they do not understand. This is true not just of visible disabilities, but of the not-so-obvious one's as well. Things like autism, aspergers, and developmental delays are not as obvious and are much more common.
I am a firm believer in being honest with my kids. I have talked to them about bullying (and what will happen to them if I find out they are guilty of bullying anyone). We need to make our kids understand what disabilities are and how they affect the people and families effected by them. We cannot do that if we do not know ourselves, so research it, educate yourself, ask questions, and if your kids ask you a question about something that you don't know about, find out together. It is important that you understand so that they will understand and learn empathy.
Kids need to learn to celebrate differences and they cannot do that unless we as adults show them how. My youngest daughter, as I have talked about before here, is different. She views the world through a very unique perspective. While I worry about how she will fit into the world, I celebrate the fact that she doesn't. I do not worry about her as much as I worry about how the world will treat her. I want her to learn how to function in the world without loosing her own whimsy.
I think that most parents want their kids to be the ones who are accepting. We want our kids to be the good kids. No one says "Yay! My kid is the jerk of the class! Everyone fears him!" But it is our job to make sure that they aren't. We have to teach them NOT to be. So teach your children well.