Well, it happened. My 4-year-old had his first bullying experience this summer at camp. My sweet little guy, who had only really socialized within the safe space of his parents’ care, or in the protected bubble of his pre-K classroom. My innocent, sheltered boy who had only ever heard of bullies from books or TV.
I don’t know exactly how it started, but it was lunchtime, and my boy wandered over to the “big kids” table to say hi to his 10-year-old brother. Soon after, his bully, one of the big kids, grabbed his backpack, and threw it on the floor. Repeatedly. Called him stupid. Repeatedly. Opened his lunchbox, took out a dollar and said to my boy, “I’ll stop being mean to you if you give me your dollar.”
That’s when my older son and his best buddy got wind of what was going on and stepped in. They told my little guy not to give the bully his dollar. They told the bully to shut up and stop already. Soon after, my little guy built up some courage himself and said to his bully, “I’m not stupid. I’m stupid smart.” (Both of my boys keep harkening back to this part of the story, because they are extremely proud of this retort.)
When my husband called the next day to tell the camp staff what happened, the staff claimed that they had no idea about the bullying, and simply thought my little guy was crying because he wanted to sit at his big brother’s table, but was asked to rejoin the little kid table.
It was an honest mistake. It can be difficult to keep track of what is happening in a busy, chaotic, loud cafeteria.
But that’s when it hit me, hard. In just a few weeks, my sweet boy will be in kindergarten, at the “big boy” school, surrounded by a ton more kids than he was in pre-K. There will be lunch, recess, hallways — so many opportunities for kids of all ages to become unhinged and go after one another with hurtful words, insults, cruelty, and even their fists.
The night after my son’s camp bullying experience, he said to me, “I didn’t know bullies were real, Mommy.”
It broke my heart into a million pieces to hear him say that, but I realized that as much as I absolutely did not want my son to experience any of what he did ever again, this incident was actually an opening for us to have some real and necessary talks about bullying. I’ll share with you what we’ve been talking about:
1. Always tell a grown-up if someone has bullied you.
This seems like a no-brainer to us grown-ups, but part of what happens when you are bullied is that you are shamed into believing that you don’t deserve help. Some kids also think that they themselves will get in trouble (or that the bully will push further) if they tell a grown-up. So we need to teach our kids early that they must tell a grown-up no matter what and that the grown-ups will handle it for them. I tell my kids that they must tell me in particular when this happens, because no matter how anyone else deals with the situation, their mama bear will be on top of it and make sure that everyone else follows suit.
2. Here’s how to confidently stand up to a bully.
In our house, we always say, “Use your words, not your fists.” Not everyone will agree with that, but I don’t think punching your bully in the face is going to help matters (unless, of course, your bully is getting physical and you need to get physical in self-defense). There are ways to stand up for yourself with your words — powerful ways. Confidently tell your bully, “No! This is not okay. Stop.” Sometimes a little humor or snark can help change the tone (like my son’s “stupid smart” comment). But if you’ve made it clear that what is happening is not okay and your bully won’t let up, walking away is not a sign of defeat. It is often the right thing to do and tells your bully that you will not be a part of this.
3. Here’s how to remain safe during a bullying situation.
This one is simple. You don’t need to stay in a vulnerable situation or allow yourself to be subject to one. Leave the situation if you can. If your friends are near, move closer to them. Either that, or move toward another group of kids. Go to a teacher. Find the helpers. They are out there. And don’t forget to be a helper yourself if you ever see another child being bullied.
4. Bullying is never right, but most kids who bully have been hurt themselves, and empathy is important.
This is a hard one to get just right, but I believe it is imperative that our kids understand that bullies don’t just sprout up out of nowhere. Bullying someone else is a defense mechanism. Usually a child who bullies has been hurt deeply in some way, often by another bully — most probably someone they are close with, like a family member. That doesn’t at all justify their actions, but it helps to know that bullies need their own help, too, and as much empathy and compassion as we can muster.
5. Bullying is never your fault, and you should never feel like you need to give in to the demands of a bully or believe the things they say about you.
This one is so important — and very difficult for kids to absorb. But they need to know that everything bullies say about them are total and complete lies. You need to instill this in their minds as much as possible. Another thing you can do is make it your job to fill their lives with positive, self-affirming messages. Allow your kids to participate in activities that build their strength and confidence. Speak kindly to them always and highlight their gifts.
I wish so much that my little guy hadn’t been bullied this summer. It felt sickening, and it shook us all up for sure. But it opened up the lines of communication between us about this issue, which I think is ultimately a blessing.
Unfortunately, there is no way to fully protect your kids from bullies, but one of the most important things you can do is make sure your child knows that they can always, always come to you, that they have the ability to stand up to bullies, and that there is nothing remotely okay or acceptable about a child being bullied at all.