Friday, March 4, 2011

Bullying: Not O.K.

Recently, Colette of Jamerican Spice posted about her son's experience being bullied in his kindergarten.  (  I didn't like the solution the teacher gave.  Apparently, in the restroom some boys said that his behind smelled bad.  Predictably, he told the teacher.  Her solution was that he should pee inside of the stall, rather than in the urinal like other boys.  Why should he have to separate -- ostracize -- himself?  Shouldn't the bullies be made to stop?

I hate to hear the excuses adults give for not stopping children's bullying:

  • "He didn't really mean it."
  • "She's has a hard life; she's just acting out what she sees at home."
  • "Don't make an issue of every little thing."
  • "Can't he take a joke?"
and the worst:
  • "She's got to learn to stand up for herself."
Of course, all of these things are true.  Sometimes, it is just a joke and we are oversensitive.  Certainly kids do try to process bad situations by re-enacting them (this time turning the tables and being the ones with all the power).  And, yes, kids do have to learn to stand up for themselves.  Whatever -- allowing child-on-child cruelty is not the solution.

As a classroom teacher (preschool/kindergarten), I know that bullying can be subtle and complex.  Sometimes it's hard to detect just who the instigator is.  Sometimes, the "victim" is actually the instigator, creating a situation in which he or she can get special attention.  Yes, sometimes.

One thing I did was to be realistic in knowing that there will be bullying at some point in time, by some children in the class, and forestall it (somewhat) by putting it out there and talking about it.  Why is bullying -- or any typical childhood behavior -- just taken as it comes?  We need to think it through and plan ahead of time for the inevitable.

I always considered myself a behavior "coach."  Just like a basketball coach models techniques and skills to move the ball, then watches his team as they practice, correcting and supporting them in their efforts, I did that with behavior.

I would set up a situation, model a "script," and let the kids role play.  

"What if I were playing with the red ball and Sara wanted it?  What could she do?  What could I do?"  We'd go from there and then a few kids would act out what we decided (with my guidance) would be a good way to negotiate the particular situation.  It was always very compelling because every child had been in both positions many times before throughout their young lives.  It was also effective.  I could hear the strategy playing out over and over again throughout the days following.  

"What if Mekhi and I were painting at the easel and he called me a Cuckoohead?  Is that o.k.?"  Same thing.

I would try to anticipate situations that were brewing and stop them before they got out of hand.

When bullying did occur, I would handle it immediately.  

First, I would have the bully apologize.  Not everyone agrees with this and with good reason.  Sometimes, children take an apology as a free pass.  "What?  I said I'm sorry."  They don't really mean it and their behavior isn't going to change.  I look at the apology as a manners issue.  It's words that help us get along in a civil society.  I figure as they grow up, they will learn the real meaning of an apology through many repeated encounters both as the apologist and apologee (not a word).

After that, they needed to make an appropriate reparation.  Did they take something?  Make fun of another?  Exclude someone?  They have to restore verbally and/or physically -- in a public way -- that thing.  Then we did a role-play of the specific situation.  This time, the right way.

"Let's pretend we're at lunch.  Shala, Leah, and Georgia see Lakesha coming towards their table.  OK, girls, what might be a good thing to say in this situation?"  By now they know the only acceptable thing is, "Hey Lakesha, come sit with us."  (Catty girl behavior does not just emerge in 7th grade.  If you're a girl, you know this.)

A few more groups of kids got to practice this too.  As a coach, I did not condemn the children who got it wrong.  They were not defined by their poor behavior.  Rather, I looked at it as a practice.  They needed my guidance and support to learn the correct behavior.  Just like that basketball player, they needed a coach to teach them the right techniques, postures, and moves to score.  This is no different -- and far more important.

Another thing I considered was whether it was an incident or a pattern.  If it was one incident, it went no further.  But if I saw a pattern, I brought in parents.  I approached it as a person concerned for their child's well-being, but who would tolerate no nonsense.  We talked about how problems are handled at home, what sibling dynamics are like, etc.  Frequently kids who bully feel they have no power.  It is never acceptable to get power at another's expense.

Kids do need to learn the script of standing up for themselves.  We practiced that too.  If Sara wanted the red ball when another had it, that went like this:
Sara:  "I want to play with the red ball.  Would you take the blue one?"
Acceptable response, "I like this one the best and waited to get it.  You can have it when I'm done."

Mekhi, "You're a cuckoohead."
Acceptable response, "It's rude to call people names.  Stop right now."

When my daughter was in kindergarten, a boy in her class told her, "You're mom has a big butt."  Of course, this has nothing to do with anyone's actual hind end and everything to do with power.  Gem and I talked about it and various ways she could handle it.  Tell him to stop, ignore him, tell the teacher... The one she picked?  She laughed and said, "Oh yeah?  Say it one more time and she's going to come sit on you with that big butt."  Then kept playing with her friends (who also laughed; though one did say, "You're mommy's not fat."  Bless you, Catherine.).  And yes, we practiced it in the car on the way to school after she decided that's how she wanted to handle it.

Our children get their self-confidence from us.  When we give them our attention and respect, we are teaching them that they are worthwhile and should expect the world to treat them accordingly.  When we act justly and fairly, they learn to expect justice and fairness from the world.  When we react to the inevitable bad situations with calm self-advocacy they learn that too.

This is a hard issue with me.  The adults in my life did not teach me self-confidence and how to handle bullies effectively.  They did their best, but their best was "stand up for yourself."  (Then if you don't know how, you're somehow deficient?  Pile on the self-loathing.)  I am thankful that I came out of that dark place and now can nurture and protect the children entrusted to me.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Playful World Traveling

2009 was in some ways a low point in my life.  I was at a crossroads.  Some paths were closed off to me, some paths were newly opened to me, and some I wasn't sure how to find or if they were even there.  I had been through a very painful breach and learned that I had some friends who really weren't.  I felt like there was a hole in my heart, in my life.  (Sorry to be mysterious, but these are the essentials.)

The best way to go forward was to count my blessings every day and I began to do that.  My husband and daughter give me a reason to get up every day and make breakfast.  (I really started with the basics.)  My old (gradually less!) dilapidated house where something always needs painting, nailing, sewing, cleaning gives me employment when I need to not think...  I went back to graduate school (What's another 18 hours?).

I began to see a path through the wilderness of my mind:  a set of tasks to do every day, leading to a discernible end, building something worthwhile.  I wanted to talk about my feelings (but not dwell on the pain) and hear others' stories at the same time.  Self-help books and therapy didn't satisfy this.  I wanted a conversation in real time.

I started to sew again and found the world of YouTube stitch tutorials.  From there, I stumbled onto blogs.

Here was a group of people, all at different places on life's path.  Sometimes I feel I can help them, sometimes they help me, at all times we can support one another.  I am drawn to stories of family life, feminism, teaching, sewing and crafting, gardening, cooking.  Found some of those blogs.  I am interested in different cultures and ways of living, so I found some Amish blogs.

I went looking for Muslim blogs when a dear friend stopped wearing hijab because she felt threatened.  I listened to her (over coffee, what else?) with my heart in my throat, while her two little boys played at our feet.  She wants a good life for them -- doesn't want her "appearance" to hold them back.  What?!  That's just wrong.  I realized that I as a nonMuslim need to counter the negative climate by reaching out to sisters and brothers in Islam and celebrate our common humanity -- we need to not see any people as "other."

What I get in the blogosphere is encouragement and inspiration for myself every day -- and from people all over the world whom I never would have had the opportunity to know.  What a miracle!

I feel very fortunate to have found a true soul-sister in Salma of Visual Notes.  She wrote the Pledge of The Playful World Traveler.  Here's her link:

As  a Playful World Traveler I PLEDGE to:

* blog with integrity

* understand that while I have {my own} opinions they can be hurtful to others

*reject notions, ideas & words that humiliate and isolate others

*understand that I inhabit various locations simultaneously

that I can be an oppressor as well as oppressed at the same time

*identify and celebrate differences without being something that I am not
NEVER defending who I am (my background, race, class etc)

*know that the world outside my window is a trifle of God's creation & be thankful for his mercy

*understand that we all experience and handle situations differently

*reach out to encourage & support other bloggers when they are faced with the negative aspects of life, and 
celebrate the positives ALWAYS

*celebrate the beauty of humanity/parenthood/sister-brotherhood  
(trying to be gender-neutral here, so it's not just for women)

Thanks for this, Salma.  I am lucky to have you as a friend.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Of a Certain Age

I just made my 48th birthday and I'm pretty happy about it.  I've got a pretty good life, all told.  Reasonably happy marriage and well-adjusted child:  check.  Meaningful work:  check.  Comfortable place to live:  check.  A very good life, really.   I've absolutely no cause to complain.

I'm also at the age where people stop saying, "She's good-looking," and start saying, "She looks good for her age."

OK, what's the big deal?  I do actually "look good for my age."   If I do say it myself.  People routinely think I am 10 or more years younger than I am.  I eat right (mostly), wear sunscreen (always), am reasonably active (mostly), get enough sleep (mostly), don't smoke or drink (mostly).  And I've got good genes -- my mother looks phenomenal for her age.  (...for her age, there it is again.)

Getting a few color or not to color?  A few lines...well, they're laugh lines, so that means I'm good-humored, right?

I've always been a low-maintenance, low-glamor type.  I don't wear makeup (can't see starting at this point), much jewelery, or even paint my nails.  I've never gone in for faddish dress (not since my college days, anyway).  Yet, I've always enjoyed looking good -- now I've got to settle for looking "good enough."

Sounds petty, I know.  But there it is.  Now back to our regularly scheduled aging.  Which definitely is better than the alternative, and for which I am sincerely grateful.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Fried Green Tomatoes

Where would I be without home grown tomatoes?  One great thing about life in the Deep South is the long growing season.  In fact, it's year round.  Well, until a freeze comes along and turns my tomatoes to mush.

Tomatoes are growing like crazy, harvesting continues apace in the cool January weather, until the weatherman predicts a freeze.  I could cover and coddle them, hoping they'll pull through.  But I'm not that kind of gardener -- any plant of mine needs to make it on its own.  So I rush out and pick everything off the vines.

Some I put into paper bags on the counter to ripen slowly over the next days and weeks.  But the rest are cooked immediately.  I slice them, sprinkle with salt and pepper, dip in an egg wash, then in seasoned cornmeal and fry them on medium-high.

My husband, just arriving home, steals a few crispy slices and eats them right up -- so hot they burn his tongue!  He says the delicious fragrance that hits him as he comes in the front door compels him and any collateral damage is totally worth it.

Fried green tomatoes is one of the joys of winter in the South.

Monday, January 10, 2011

How Many Do You Have?

Aunt needs help in the garden from someone with some muscles.  19-year-old nephew is college student perpetually in need of funds.  He comes over early to get a good start.

Aunt:  "Do you want some breakfast?  How about some scrambled eggs?  How many do you want"

Nephew:  "How many do you have?"

Aunt:  "Er, six?"

Nephew:  "Great...thanks!"


So nephew eats six -- yes six -- eggs and a veritable mountain of various other breakfast foods, then worked like two horses for the rest of the morning.  Aunt pays generously, remembering when she was a broke college student.

New garden beds shaping up nicely.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Enough Religion

Jonathan Swift said, "We have just enough religion to hate, but not enough to make us love one another."  I resolve this year to love.

I have always believed that love is a decision, not just a feeling that happens to me.  I resolve this year to love my family, especially my husband and daughter.  I'm going to tell them so every day.

I am going to love other people too.  I have great neighbors and friends, but I don't have them over enough.  I will offer hospitality at least once a month, even if it's just coffee and dessert.  

Well, so much for the ones that are easy to love.  I get a great return on that investment already.  Now the real work starts.

There are these people who live in the next block.  All day long they seem to wander up and down the street, eating junk food and throwing their bags and bottles on the ground.  A couple of times a day, I pick it up with a scowl.  This year, I'm going to smile when I'm picking up neighborhood litter and invite those neighbors for coffee and dessert too.  And not call them "those people."  Or even think of them in those terms from this moment on.

Sometimes I miss opportunities to love because I fear rejection.  I resolve to sincerely try to help when I see a need.  I'm not going to worry about whether the person accepts me or my help.  I am just going to try.

I think I can muster enough religion for that.