Ten years ago, my daughter’s friend was bullied on the playground. It started out as a joke, a quirky game. As the “game” progressed, maybe some kids still thought it was a joke. But the “joke” culminated with this child being restrained on the ground by three children, trying to force grass into the victim’s mouth.
My daughter Anna threw herself right into the mix. She shouted, “Stop that!” repeatedly. Anna dropped to the ground and pushed the other kids away, asking, “What if this was you?” She pulled her friend back to standing and lodged a complaint with the teacher. My daughter was 11 years old.
In the primitive social world of school, there are lots of characters. There are the kids who are “different,” socially awkward, physically different, and easily targeted. There are the bullies, who pick on others to make themselves feel strong and tough. There are the silent bystanders, who neither bully nor protect. And then, here and there, you find a hero.
Hero kids see someone being hurt and actively intervene. Maybe they sit next to the victim. Maybe they play with them at recess. Maybe they tell a teacher. Maybe they just talk to the victim. In the intervention, the hero kid makes a socially risky move. Hero kids take a gamble on behalf of someone more vulnerable than them. They trade social security for a moral stance, just because they know it’s the right thing to do. As a result, anything can happen to the hero kid. Maybe he himself will become the next target? Or maybe, he will be seen as even cooler by demonstrating compassion to others.
I myself was never a hero kid. Because I was socially shunned at times, I would have never risked my shaky social status to help someone more vulnerable. I don’t say this with pride, but it’s the truth. I was the beneficiary of a child hero though. In the middle of eighth grade, I had to move to a new school. In some ways I didn’t mind, because I had been bullied the entire previous year by a group of girls who taunted me mercilessly. So, moving didn’t seem so bad, until I started my first day in junior high school, completely friendless.
At lunchtime, the usual allotted bullying hour, I sat with my assigned student guide and her group of friends. One of them, Karen, interviewed me over our sandwiches. At some point, I passed some unstated test, because Karen enfolded me into her group of friends from that day forward. Karen was my hero. I still heard taunts now and then. But I belonged to a group of girls, and I was safely rescued from the social perils of eighth grade. Karen didn’t know she was rescuing the worst athlete in the school, someone who was, until that day, a social pariah. She also didn’t know she was rescuing someone who would still be a best friend 40 years later. So, her compassion worked out for both of us.
October is National Bullying Prevention Month; what can we do to help? Combatting bullying starts in the family. Raising our children to be aware of others’ pain and to be empathic is an important start. We can model empathy, so they know someone cares about their feelings. We can tell them stories about brave people and teach them to admire people who protect the vulnerable. We can teach them how to help other kids: sitting with kids who are alone, talking to kids with no friends, sounding the alarm when a child is being bullied.
In addition to the anti-bullying work done in schools, another way to combat school bullying is by actively rewarding hero kids. What if schools gave prizes for kids who were brave and compassionate? I would clap much harder for a kid who was brave on the playground than for a kid who did best in math class. Wouldn't you? If we gave social recognition and public honor to acts of bravery, wouldn't we have more heroes? Kids chase praise. They know we want them to be the best at soccer. What if they knew they could win our praise by being a good friend to someone who really needs one?
We can empower the bullied kid to stand up for themselves and seek help. I never did this. I never even knew help was possible. I don't know what would have happened if I asked a teacher for help. We can also intervene with bullies, teaching them anger management skills and helping them to develop more empathy. Perhaps their home situation is a problem (How did they learn to be a bully? Where did that behavior start?). Perhaps they can learn to be more tolerant and kinder.
Additionally, we can inspire more bystanders to be heroes. I think if we teach kids that they can make a huge difference by being friendly to the bullied, this will reduce bullying. One way we can do this is by modeling hero behavior ourselves. Bullying usually happens when a vulnerable person is alone. While we may not be in school anymore, there are still plenty of opportunities to support people who are feeling marginalized. If our kids see us making a stand now and then, they might feel inspired to do the same.
How can we make a stand? We can start by noticing who might be feeling socially isolated. Seven years after the playground incident, I began to drive my hero daughter Anna to college tours. Over time, I noticed that the parents of color were often sitting by themselves. In the auditorium, a sea of white parents would sit next to other white families, chatting away, while the few parents of color sat quietly in isolated pockets. On a day when everyone should be sharing excitement about their children’s future, why should some parents sit without company? I started sitting next to parents of color.
“Is this seat taken?” I would ask.
“It is now!” would come the usual hearty reply.
We would start chatting, smiling, sharing our children's accomplishments and our dreams for their future.
Ever since then, I make a point of sitting next to people of color who seem isolated in public. In the airport, at conventions, at the train station… I make a little one-woman stand for integration. Does this make me a hero? Absolutely not. I'm literally just sitting down. But in my own way, I am reaching out to someone who might feel vulnerable and isolated. I am also modeling what I would want my girls to do.
We can work toward preventing bullying on many levels, in the school, in the home and all around us. Thank God we don't have to be as brave as little Anna. Preventing bullying can be as simple as sitting down next to a person who appears isolated and saying "Hi."
How easy is that?