Many of us carry the scars that we received from bad experiences at school. Maybe you had a group of mean girls that kept you out of their cool group. Maybe there was a boy that would punch you when no one was looking. Do you remember that sick feeling going to school?
I think of the fear and pain that I endured at the hands of a bully or two when I was a kid and would never wish this kind of existence on my kids. It is a pain I’d like to help them avoid at all costs.
But, for every kid and adult that has a story of being bullied, there is the bully’s story. And I wonder if they deserve the label.
Not too long ago one of my boys was hurt by another boy. There was more than one incident and the treatment was very unkind. The school handled it beautifully. They made sure this “bully” faced consequences to his actions. He had to write an apology letter to my son in addition to other consequences that were laid out by the school.
A year later this boy tried to be my son’s friend. He said he was sorry and that he had changed. My son wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do it. He could not forgive. This hurt the “bully” deeply. So much so that he went home to his mother and his mother found herself calling me. I’m glad she did. I can’t imagine the courage it took for her to call me. As a result, my son and I had a talk. Together, we changed our definition of a bully.
My son was taught that being unkind was bad. He may have decided that any unkind action was being a bully. Bullies are bad. We need to tell on the bullies so they don’t hurt others. Protect others from the bully. From this line of thinking, why would one ever befriend (or trust) a bully?
Now I wonder, once the bully is put in his or her place, how will he or she ever get out? Will this “bully” after one or two bad choices, become ostracized and separated from the “good” kids because of the label that has been put on him or her?
Kindness and forgiveness. Maybe this is what my son’s “bully” needed. His mother needed it too. I worry that in our society we put so much emphasis on the victim that we forget that these are children that we are dealing with. This kid made some bad choices. But don’t all of our kids make bad choices? Don’t they eventually deserve forgiveness? A second chance?
Here’s a different experience: There were two boys that made my oldest son’s life on the bus truly miserable when they were in elementary school. For many weeks he was physically and emotionally abused. While the situation was resolved (again by the school) it was something that shook me as a parent.
They are all in high school now. Last year my son mentioned one of these boys’ names in passing. He was giving him rides home from football practice. He forgave. He remembers what it was like to be victimized, but it had certainly not scarred him for life. It is one of many experiences he had in school that has shaped his view of the world. Moreover, he has experienced what it feels like to forgive someone for their actions and move on. This boy didn’t deserve his forgiveness but because he chose to, he has a loyal friend that he would have missed out on having if he had chosen to harden his heart forever toward him.
We as parents cannot shield our children from every bad thing that will happen to them in their childhood. And if we do, we will rob them of the experiences needed to become the kind of adults they were meant to be. My sons have been on the receiving end of cruelty. Very possibly, they have also been cruel to others. But hopefully with guidance from the adults in their life they will take these experiences and grow from them.
Please, let me be clear. I am not advocating for minimizing the pain that is inflicted by bullying as I do believe it exists. I do not mean to suggest that we turn a blind eye to systematic and cruel actions. I would never suggest that the safety of our children should not be the top priority or that we should not believe our children when they say they need help. However, I wonder if our society has taught our children to be hyper-sensitive to the term, “bully” to the point that any bad choice made by a kid is labeled as bullying. How easy is it for us to label a child as a “bad kid” and write them off our playgroup list? What do you do if your kid is labeled a bully? What steps must you take in order to clear their name? How much shame do you feel if your child receives this label (deserved or not)?
As school starts up again, (and playdates for the younger crowd) I’d like to suggest that we try to keep both sides in mind when conflict arises. Teaching our kids kindness, forgiveness, and empathy when they are mistreated may be scary to them and us. But, it may help them more long-term in being the kind of adults we want our children to become.