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My phone rang last week, displaying an unfamiliar number. I answered and was greeted by a representative from the baby’s school. He was a counselor heading up their new bullying prevention initiative. There had been an incident.

I automatically assumed that it was my son who had been at the receiving end of the bullying. But as I listened, it turned out that my son had been the bully and some other child his victim.

I couldn’t believe it.

I mean, my kid is an 8-year-old boy and obviously not the sweet baby that he was just a few years ago, but a bully?

The counselor explained further that the baby and another boy had created a game that involved smacking another kid, the object of which was for the smackee to stop the smackers in time. The boy who was the smackee asked them to stop several times. They did not.

I was somewhat relieved. This was not bullying as I understood it, someone with deep psychological issues who preys upon and terrorizes someone for arbitrary reasons, a behavior in adults we call stalking and harassment and sometimes even assault. I was even more relieved when the counselor told me that after the victim came to him to report the incident and the baby and his friend were called in to discuss the incident, the baby was very sorry and felt very bad about the whole thing and was very concerned about how much trouble he was going to be in with me.

I’m glad that the school has this program and that they’re encouraging children to speak up and seek protection when they’re being hurt. And I’m glad that the definition of bullying is broader than what I had assumed.

I told the baby later that I understood that he was not a bad person, that he had done something wrong but that I didn’t feel that he had set out to torment the child, who, in most other circumstances, is one of his school friends. I also told him about my experiences with bullying, that kids had picked on me for years because I was a small kid and because I was weird and because I was different. When he went back to school on Monday, he apologized to the boy and they made up.

As I was initially freaking out to a friend about this, she wisely told me, “I think it’s very easy for a kid to be a bully one minute, not a bully the next, the victim of bullying five minutes later, etc. I certainly played a number of different roles in the bullying landscape of school during my years in it…It’s complicated.”

“Like Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion?” I replied.

I remembered specifically my middle school experience, which was certainly the worst of my school years, I was picked on constantly, but I remember getting some sick pleasure of being mean to two other girls. One was the tall, fat girl, the other was the short, extremely smart and quiet girl who bent down to bring her mouth to her food and not the other way around. I made fun of them behind their backs. Doing so gave me a few moments of acceptance within the larger group, some relief from being the center of ridicule. I may have been weird, but I wasn’t them.

I can’t remember my mom or dad ever telling me explicitly to treat other people with at least a little bit of respect, to recognize that they’re human and have feelings. They might have or maybe relied on my Catholic education to take care of that aspect of morality.

I doubt that this will be the last time that my son is ever mean or crosses a line or hurts someone’s feelings. But I told him anyway, “Be nice to people. Think about how you would feel if you were in their position. Assume that they’re having a rough time and take it easy on them.” What else is there to do?

3 comments to bully

  • I just had to explain to my daughter the difference between kids being proud and kids being jealous. If you have the time: http://twogirlsandaroad.wordpress.com/2010/10/21/cover-art/

    Bullies will never go away, sadly, but I hope we can help kids with their self-esteem. I agree with you, I don’t think your son was “bullying” anyone, but it’s best he get that emotional twist in the gut now before apathy sets in. Kids are great but at the the same time, they can be equally awful! You’re doing a great job :)

  • I think zero tolerance policies in schools have gone too far. I understand why they exist, obviously, but kids are still kids and need “kid justice.”

    Was this bullying? I have no idea. But as the parent of a 5 year old who gets in trouble A LOT for hitting, I know one day soon he is going to be called a bully.

    Parenting is hard.

  • In our parent/teacher conference, we heard the big “but” as L’s teacher began to tell us about his behavior. How he makes another girl cry. How he’s been in fights on the playground. How he doesn’t think about his actions. Do I think he’s a bully? No. I think he just doesn’t understand the full weight of his actions. So we talked. And I discovered that many of his actions can from frustration and boredom that he really wasn’t sure how to express. L is just beginning to understand how is actions affect others. I think it’s a hard thing for even adults to remember sometimes. It’s easy for your 8 year old or my 5 year old to struggle with the concept.

    I don’t think bullying is the right label for your son.

    Jodi’s right, parenting is hard.

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