We can’t keep our kids in bubbles. We want to protect them from everything bad and wrong with this world, but we can’t, and it sucks. Because when our children hurt, we feel it more than they do sometimes, especially when their hearts or feelings are hurt.
Kids are honest and ruthless and can be really mean — mine included. Kids are learning. They are looking for guidance. Fighting, confrontations, and words that probably shouldn’t be said are part of life. This is to be expected. But there is a point when mistakes turn into repetitive behavior and outright bullying.
DoSomething.org reports that over 3.2 million students are bullied each year. That does not include unreported incidents or bullying that takes place outside of a school. But for the kids in grades 4th-8th, 90% of them have said they were bullied. That is awful. We can’t bully-proof our kids, but we can certainly do things to prevent it or stand up to it.
1. Teach Consent Early
It is never too early to talk to kids about consent. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to talk about sex to kids, though these early lessons will help as they get older and this subject starts to arise. I am talking about teaching kids to respect the word “no.” We can remind children — even toddlers — that “no” really means no. It means stop.
This is a big one in our house. My kids are 7 and 5. I am constantly reminding them that they are in charge of their bodies and their actions. When anyone says “no” to them, they must stop what they are doing. This could be tickling, touching, playing, or name calling. If my kids can respect and understand their bodies and feelings enough to say no to something that doesn’t feel right, my hope is that they will respect and honor the word “no” when it is said to them.
2. Preach Kindness
It is our job to teach kids how to communicate in positive ways. We can teach them right and wrong. We can help them understand empathy and learn the art of human decency. A book we use in our house is called Have You Filled a Bucket Today? The book uses a metaphorical bucket of water to show someone’s happiness. When our buckets are full, we usually feel good. We are patient and generous with our desire to fill someone else’s bucket by doing acts of kindness. Being kind feels good to everyone. But when someone is mean or rude, our buckets are dipped into and we lose some of that happiness. If our buckets get too low, we become sad, angry, or mean too.
This book provides a great lesson in empathy. It shows kids that their actions have really big impacts on other people. It teaches them that being kind is contagious and benefits them too.
3. Respect, Not Friendship
I don’t like everyone I meet, and I don’t expect my kids to either. However, I do my best to respect the people I meet and ask my kids to do the same thing. We all have internal instincts, or gut feelings, about other people. I don’t want my kids to ignore that intuition. Also, we are drawn to some people more than others. This is how we make friends and avoid assholes. I don’t ask my kids to be friends with everyone they meet. I ask them to be friendly and inclusive. I remind my kids that if a classmate wants to join in an activity on the playground or at school, then give them the opportunity to be included. They would want the same thing. But if the kid is a jerk or makes them feel uncomfortable, my kids can always walk away. Show the kid respect, but it’s also okay to say friendship isn’t in the cards right now.
4. Be An Upstander
According to DoSomething.org, when someone intervenes, bullying stops within 10 seconds. Yet 85% of the time, no one does anything. If the situation is safe enough to do so, I tell my kids to always do something. I recognize this is scary and uncomfortable, but we go back to the “what would you want someone to do for you” conversation.
Intervening can simply be going up to a friend or classmate who is being picked on and asking them if they need help. It can be telling the bully to stop and then asking the classmate to walk away from the situation. It can be alerting an adult to the situation. The idea is to do something. I tell my kids to be an upstander. If the situation is physical, I tell my kids the first step is to always call for an adult. But in most cases, the scenario is one kid being a jerk to another.
My kids have seen me model the behavior I want them to mimic. I have heard kids call each other names. I have seen them take stuff from each other. I have seen them push and hit. My response is the same almost every time: “Hey. That’s not kind. Do you guys need help solving a problem? I am happy to help you or find someone who can.” Sometimes the kids talk to me and sometimes they disperse. Either way, the situation doesn’t escalate.
Being an upstander takes courage, but it also creates empowered kids who have the confidence to speak up for themselves and their friends.
5. Zero Tolerance Policy
No person, child or adult, is required to suck it up and deal with bullying. My kids have two moms, and one of my children is transgender. I have ZERO patience or tolerance for any kind of inappropriate comments or actions that indicate there is something wrong with my kids or family because of our queerness. However, I have the same level of tolerance (none) for anything that is said to my kids that make them feel small, insecure, or insignificant. I can’t prevent my kids from hearing hurtful words or being the target of a bully, but I can do my best to raise them with enough confidence and resilience to know they do not have to take any of it.
I know my kids will have their feelings hurt. They will be crushed by the weight of someone’s actions and words. But with enough reminders and lessons in kindness and empathy, my hope is that they will have the ability to speak up when their voice needs to be heard. I hope they are secure enough in themselves to let go of any negative thoughts and feelings that arise when they are the victims of bullying. And I really hope to raise kind kids who will stand up to a bully and not be become one.