Thinking about bullies and bullying these days. How do we teach our girls to stand up for themselves while also being compassionate and kind? I’m reminded I did a lousy job of it when I had a teachable parenting moment at a movie theater a few months ago and blew it. Or so I thought.

You've got to have the visual first. Picture a large movie theater lobby. You've all been there. Four cascading staircases separated by steel handrails, then an escalator going up and an escalator going down side by side.

Basically, the folks going up and down have multiple options to accomplish both.

This is an important concept.

My daughter and I are waiting for friends in this polar-air conditioned Cineplex lobby so we can all go see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.

We are always early.

Who is a bully? What is a bully?

There are no benches and no place to sit in this lobby. My daughter and I decide to sit on the bottom step of the last (of FOUR, NOT COUNTING THE ESCALATOR) of four staircases. It's a matinee on a great beach day so the theater is relatively empty. We are the only people in the lobby. Nobody is going up the stairs or coming down the stairs.

We sit for maybe five minutes when a man, late 40s, wiry, veiny-limbed sticks the front of his worn penny loafer into my upper back while my daughter and I are sitting on the bottom step. He gives me a little shove as his wan wife and young daughter are coming down the OTHER STAIRCASES BECAUSE THERE ARE MANY OTHER UNOCCUPIED OPTIONS.

Parseltongue? Or Just a Bully?

His wife gives me a pained look and nudges her chin up at her husband, like to signal me: Come on, sister, move. He's going to blow his stack if you don't. Just give in. Let him get his way or all hell will break loose.

Before I could fully process the telepathic message from his wife's sad eyes, the guy hisses at me in this snakey whisper: Thisssss issss NOT a bench.

In the meantime, my daughter and I had gotten up quickly. He barely broke his stride enough to kick me and move on his way. The wife dropped her head as if in shame and the daughter jumped jauntily by.

Still reeling, but aware I would not be bullied by this jerk, I said loudly:

 There is nowhere else to sit, buddy, so thanks for the tip!

I would have continued but my daughter's eyes rolled to the heavens.

Mom. Don't.

She knows I don't suffer fools gladly, just loudly.

Me: I will not be bullied by some jerk who probably spends his whole day at work and at home pushing people around and never being held accountable.

Daughter: Mom, you are saying that just because he was rude to us for a minute you can figure out his whole entire life? You're stereotyping his whole personality from this one second?

Me: Absolutely.

Daughter: Why do you have to make such a huge deal out of it?

Me: Because nobody stands up to creeps like that.

Daughter: How do you KNOW that? It was like two seconds! How do you know anything about him?

Me: Because to feel comfortable, arrogant and entitled enough to literally kick me off the step, and to hiss at us like that, demonstrates to me that he feels utterly confident that he can and will get away with that kind of behavior anywhere and everywhere. You learn all about bullies in school, right? Cyber bullies, playground bullies, bullies at school. And what is the antidote to a bully with low self-esteem? A loud gal with confidence! This was such a small thing and he had to behave that way? What does it say about him?

Daughter: Uh, Mom, what does it say about you?

Me: It says that I'm teaching my daughter to stand up to bullies and not to let people push her around. I also wanted to show his wife and his daughter that if other people don't think he's scary or powerful, neither should they. I want you to have the self-confidence and self-esteem to confront this kind of thing. Did you see his wife's face and how she hung her head after it?

Daughter: Maybe she was just embarrassed. Maybe they just got into a fight and she knew he was frustrated and she was embarrassed for just a second and the whole thing had nothing to do with you.

Me: Okay, that's a possibility. Hadn't thought of that.

Daughter: Or maybe he just saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, and he was trying to speak Parseltongue; ever thought of that?

Me: Interesting.

Daughter: Or maybe he's a hall monitor at school. Like, that's his whole, entire job. And he's a super nice guy in every way, except when he sees somebody sitting where they are not supposed to be sitting. Because his whole job is to get kids moving and not let them lounge by their lockers and just keep everything moving. Maybe he saw us and just lost his mind for a second and had to do his job!

Me: Now that actually sounds far more likely than my interpretation. Wow. Makes much more sense, doesn't it? Okay. He's probably a  top-notch monitor - who speaks to snakes! But if that's true, what about how important it is to me to teach you how not to be silenced by people like that? How do I teach you self confidence, self esteem, how to stand up to bullies and all of those important life lessons? The world is full of jerks. How are you going to learn how to advocate for yourself, to stand up for yourself, your rights and your beliefs?

Daughter: I just did.  


About the Author

Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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