Coaching Your Kid To Stand Up To Bullies

My son is in Grade 1, and he has this one particular classmate who worried me from the first day. I was told, by a friend of mine whose son was in his kindergarten class, that he was “the cool kid.” It was obviously true. Short but sporty, tough little chin, primary-school mohawk haircut. Clearly comfortable with his peers, even on that first stressful day.

For the purposes of this post, let’s call him “Ringleader.”

From what I can gather, he’s the middle son in his family, and his mom is heavily involved in the School Council. He knows how to be an upstanding citizen. He’s the kind of kid who knows how to cooperate and use good manners, and can deftly and justly organize a group of kids building a snow fort. IF there’s an adult standing there, observing.

If it’s the kids alone, though, apparently his rule becomes dictatorial. He forces other kids into set roles, and reserves the right to fire them capriciously. We have heard Ringleader’s name many times in relation to playground governance, but last week, E told us he hadn’t had fun at recess specifically because Ringleader had fired him from their clubhouse – apparently for “not doing his job” (even though E was sure he’d never been assigned a job).

It’s worth noting that E took the appropriate first step: reporting to adults he trusted.

We said things like, “He can’t just fire you. He doesn’t own that part of the playground. You don’t have to go away just because he says that.” (Sean encouraged E to tell Ringleader it was “wrongful dismissal.”)

We thought it might just blow over, but the next day it continued, even worsened. And I realized that, as much as we teachers discuss and implement anti-bullying strategies at school, I wasn’t at all confident about the best way to coach E on this. It’s easy to say, “Stand up for yourself!”, but unrealistic to expect a shy six-year-old to know how to do that.

When I was a kid, I was homeschooled for basically all of elementary school – and it was my choice. I had enjoyed kindergarten, but what I remember of my brief taste of Grade 1, other than stultifyingly boring Mr. Mugs readers, was being scared of the Grade 2 boys on the playground. One reason I didn’t return to public school until Grade 9 was that my older brother and sister both had troubles at school, especially during the intermediate years, with other students who were horribly, habitually mean to them.

It was the right choice for me. We were – and are – a family of confirmed nerds, but fortunately my high school was a big place with lots of smart kids among whom my nerdiness was not a big deal. Although I’d always been aware, through my various extracurricular activities, that I was weird and shy and lacking in cool-cred, I did know I was lucky never to have been traumatized by hard-core bullying.

Last week, in trying to help my son, I deferred to Sean, who did attend public school, and who is a boy, and who also dealt on many occasions with kids who picked on him. He talked to E about pretending you’re confident, and, apparently even more important, pretending you don’t care what the bully says. When Ringleader says you’re fired, shrug your shoulders and walk off. Find your own fun. Be a free agent. Say to some other kid, “Hey, I’m going to go do such-and-such – you can play too if you want.” (Implied: but I’m fine if you don’t.) THIS is how you take away the power of the social bully. Sean assured our son that when he was a kid, it worked every time.

Good advice, I think, but of course, this is so hard. As E describes it, almost every boy in his class is… employed by Ringleader. It’s hard to walk away when nobody’s left to play with. Not only that, but the second day this happened, some of the kids who’d rallied behind Ringleader to exclude E were ones who have been his closest friends this year. Even though some of them were ones who’d previously been “fired.” (Fickle little jerks.) Such is the power of Ringleader.

And such is the potency of the Group. We talk a lot about uniting against bullying, about mustering the courage to call bullies out. In reality, it is painfully true that kids don’t often stand up to bullies in person – on behalf of themselves or others. It is much easier to fall into rank behind the current ringleader, given the chance, no matter how mean he is. The one time recently when I witnessed one of my Grade 4 students scolding two of his classmates (with great eloquence, I might add) for picking on someone, I was amazed, and literally almost cried.

Last week, I also advised E to ask this boy, “Hey Ringleader, did you know that you’re a bully?” Because there’s always the possibility that he’s in denial. I’m certain he knows that bullying is bad – schools drive home this message ad nauseam – but sometimes kids are weirdly oblivious to the sum of their actions.

When I’m talking to a student accused of picking on someone, I usually ask, “Are you a mean kid?” Almost without exception, they say no. “Then why are you doing mean things?” I say. “Because if you do lots of mean things, that makes you a mean kid.” Strangely, many of them have never bothered to do this math for themselves. Maybe Ringleader just needs to be shown the equation.

In the days following the “firings,” I kept asking E how his recess went. By day 3, he had been “rehired” and given a job with his friend J. He seemed happy enough (after all, his job was making mud balls), but I was seething a bit at the arrogance of this kid. This week, things seem to have simmered down. And one day, E said he’d “wandered around” at recess, rather than be “forced” to play goalie in soccer, which seems like a healthy stroke of independence. (Evidently he’d been forced to play goalie once before and felt he was terrible at it.)

I’m on the lookout for trouble now. I want to know if this crops up again – and frankly, I don’t see why it wouldn’t, unless Ringleader experiences some sort of comeuppance.

I’m well aware that my son, much as I love him, sometimes behaves in ways that could be annoying to other kids. I don’t witness his school interactions, but it could be a factor. I also know that he has developed a tendency to take things personally, and hard. For reasons we are still working to discern, his level of resiliency is not as high as it was when he was a toddler, or even an infant. He is also smallish and ghost-pale, has glasses and a lisp, and is probably smarter than either of his parents. Perfect bully-bait.

This has been a good lesson for me, as both a parent and a teacher. Just hoping my children will be happy and well-liked for their whole lives doesn’t make it so; similarly, talking theoretically about anti-bullying strategies to large groups of kids can only go so far. We’ve got to address it as it happens, and with dogged forthrightness.

This past Wednesday, many schools in our board celebrated Pink Shirt Day, an annual “Stand Together Against Bullying” event. And according to the Interwebs, Friday, February 26th is “International STAND UP to Bullying Day.”

We got the shirts. We’re ready to wear pink, and we’re ready to ask and discuss and research and help our kids – both biological and pedagogical – figure out how to manage bullying situations in their real lives.

I’ll keep you posted.

IMG_3225 pink shirt day

If you’re interested in reading more, here’s what I’ve found helpful so far:

  • A short but useful article from Psychology Today here;
  • “Bully-Proof Your Child” from Parents Magazine here;
  • Resources for teaching children resiliency here.



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