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OPINION: On Not Raising a Bully

How do we go about it?


There is not, as far as I can ascertain, much bullying in toddler daycare. Sure, there’s the occasional toy snatching, perhaps some snack stealing, even a push or two. The systemic and repeated abuse that characterize bullying, however, remains in that far-off land of elementary school.

Bullying has been in the lately. It has had the most dire of consequences here in Howard County, driving a 15-year-old girl to suicide. The stories are sobering.

The question for the parent of a toddler, then, is how to best prepare both the boy and ourselves for the coming storm.

I don’t believe that bullying can be eradicated, that by some amalgamation of education and exposure calculated meanness will disappear from our schools and playgrounds. The urge to exclude is a primal element of the human condition. That is not, of course, an excuse for the behavior, any more than saying that because death is coming for all of us, we should concede. We still need to fight.

Since bullying can’t really be avoided, it is something to be managed, prepared for. But how? After all, the ability to be assertive, to be confident in oneself, is an invaluable attribute. The military is fond of quoting Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”

Childhood is a time of preparation for the strains and stresses of adulthood, and the relationships forged in prepubescent bullying (yes, bully and his target share a relationship, no matter how sad it is) prepare you for the cruel boss, the difficult coworker. It’s a big world, and a dangerous one, and as such I have difficulty imagining releasing my child onto the big yellow schoolbus to face the pressures of the Mean Kids. If I don’t, though, I will have failed him, failed to prepare him for what awaits.

All of which is to say I have no idea (as is remarkably common in most parental situations). I guess, like most things in parenting, it’s about balance. Strike too hard or too soft in any one direction, and you risk a permanently off-canter child. Hide a child from the world, and he’ll never grow; push him out as self-centered egoist, and he'll become the problem.

Perhaps important to remember is that worst of all would be a child who was, themselves, a bully. Prevention begins by teaching a child early on the value of empathy, to recognize the feelings and worth of another. A bully is born by refusing to recognize the inner humanity of peers. Empathy is also the solution to the problem of the bystander, the silent (and thereby complicit) onlooker. Recognize the value of the victim, and the danger of obmutescence fades.

This is something that can be modeled, even for our toddler. We remind him that his actions can cause us emotional pain, that his tantrums make us “sad” or asking him how he would feel if we refused to share. As his social circle expands, it’s incumbent upon us, his parents, to make him understand that he is but one piece of the whole, not the center. And by doing so, perhaps, when the time comes, he’ll know that the bully is a person, too.

How do you prevent a bully in your house? Tell us in the comments.

Lisa Rossi (Editor) May 02, 2012 at 07:00 PM
Thanks for this column, TJ. I recently saw an 18-month-old boy push down my then-12-month-old at one of the CA gym kid centers. I was pretty horrified that it starts so early, this "urge to exclude," that you write about. And I too, am pretty baffled as to what I can do at this point (toddlerhood) to raise a kid who's assertive and not a bully.
edb May 02, 2012 at 07:16 PM
Keep doing what you're doing by making your child look at how his actions affect other people. I will tell you that 3rd grade girls are pretty mean, and if you look deeper you will find that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Catty Mom's usually have catty daughters and they don't like to be told that their little spawn is in fact, a mean child. Don't let your children hear you be catty or mean to others and be aware that sometimes everyone can be mean (even the nicest people). Boys, on the other hand like to duke it out, and I find that much easier to deal with....martial arts is the answer. Mean words are much harder to deal with than physical altercations.
Sid Berger May 04, 2012 at 10:20 PM
As creators of original puppet shows, we’re trying to help the anti-bullying issue in elementary schools with a series of puppet show scripts demonstrating some of the different current techniques for dealing with bullying. It should be noted, however, that there are many, often contradictory, theories of how to prepare children to handle bullies. The biggest variable is the individuals involved. While none of these textbook techniques will work on some of the most hard-core bullies, the objective is to reduce the incidence of bullying by raising the awareness that it is unacceptable behavior. Sid (The Creativity Institute) http://www.creativityinstitute.com/search.aspx?find=Bully
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