First of all, let’s stop over-reacting and jumping to conclusions. Kids are going to have conflicts. They are going to do and say things that they should not. Before we jump all over them for what they have said or done, let’s remind ourselves that they are picking up these behaviors from somewhere. How many adults have figured out how to be kind all of the time to everyone? Yet we expect no less from a ten year old? How could that ever make any sense?
Over the past few years, the use of the word bully has been multiplying. It’s everywhere. “Say no to the bully!” is a message our kids are receiving over and over again. It’s important, but it’s only half the story.
Don’t get me wrong, the fact that children today are aware that they should be treated kindly and fairly is definitely a step in the right direction. The problem is that this new understanding is being built on misconceptions. We spend too much time pointing fingers at the one who did something wrong and not enough time reflecting on how the victim could react differently. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.
Every classroom has at least a few “Peters and Lukes”. Peter and Luke are the type of kids who could not be more different if they tried. These two do not like each other and they are pretty upfront about it. Peter comes from a home that practices and models kindness. Luke on the other hand comes from a home where screaming and name calling is just the way it is. Peter cannot understand why Luke is often loud and rude. Luke cannot understand why Peter gets so upset anytime he calls him a name or yells at him.
Do you see where I’m going with this? They do not understand each other because they are not even remotely living the same reality at home. Our initial understanding of the world and the meaning we create from that understanding comes first and foremost from home. When all of these varying realities are thrown together into one classroom, let alone one school, is it any surprise that we end up with so much conflict?
There is a rather large gray zone between parents who believe in tough love and those who are actually verbally abusive. Far be it for me to overstep my boundaries and attempt to impose parenting styles on people. I can only hope that those who could use some softening of their tough love beliefs will read my book and pull lessons from it, but I cannot assume that all parents are open to hearing or caring about my opinion. Therefore, I offer my perspective to parents only when it is appropriate, and I do so tactfully and humbly.
However, Peter and Luke are in my class, so not only to I get to teach them how to appreciate one another, I believe it is an integral part of my job. Moreover, I believe the skills required to teach empathy and compassion ought to be taught in university and reinforced and developed further through obligatory professional workshops. As far I’m concerned, the following intervention needs to become the new standard if we sincerely wish to see a sharp decline in bullying behaviors.
Each time Peter and Luke approach me with their problems, my first step is to resist focusing on the actual complaint. I’ll address it briefly and then move on to the heart of the matter. The “what” is usually pretty irrelevant. What matters most is the self-talk going on each of their minds. Peter is busy telling himself how unfair it is that Luke was mean to him and Luke is annoyed because he has no idea why this has to be such a big deal.
There are at least two important negative consequences to simply telling the “Lukes’” of the world that their actions were hurtful and they need to “say sorry”. First of all, the Lukes are confused. They usually have parents or siblings who are treating them this way all the time and no one seems to have a problem with it. How are they supposed to react? How does a child go about changing his behavior when the main people in his life act this way towards him on a daily basis? Second, we wind up teaching the “Peters’” of the world that when our feelings are hurt it is the other person’s fault. We put the blame on the victimizer and it makes us feel better.
Before you get up in arms by saying that I am blaming the victim for his problems, please hear me out. If I tell Peter, “Poor you, Luke was mean to you again. Let’s get him to apologize,” than I am contributing to Peter’s view of himself as a victim. If instead I say to Peter, “Why do you think Luke’s words bothered you?” I give him the chance to reflect and look within himself. Peter is likely to tell me that he believes it’s mean to yell and call someone a loser. I can then agree with him. More than anything, all Peter really needs is to have his feelings validated. He is right to say that it’s wrong to call someone a loser. It is not kind or helpful in any way. What Peter does not realize is that Luke is used to being called a loser. This is everyday language for him. For Luke, there is very little shock value to this word or any others like it. So I explain this Peter. I tell him that Luke hears this word among others all the time at home. Peter feels a spark of compassion for Luke. He can’t imagine his brother or his parents ever speaking that way to him. “Do you see that you are the lucky one, Peter? As hurt as you feel by Luke’s words, can you imagine how much he is hurting? He’s so used to this type of language that he can’t even see that it isn’t normal or right.” By giving Peter a better understanding of why Luke acts the way he does, I empower him. I help him to see that Luke really doesn’t know any better, even if we think he should. Keep in mind, confidentiality rules always apply and we must not divulge personal information about our students to others. In this particular case, Luke had already made public statements about how things are for him at home, therefore I am simply helping Peter to connect the dots.
TEACHING THE VICTIMS THAT THEY NEED NOT BE VICTIMS
As Peter gets better at not believing the words that are spoken about him, he begins reacting differently to Luke. Instead of feeling hurt by Luke, he feels compassion for him. He sees Luke’s pain and he can better appreciate how lucky he is that he does not go home to a house that tolerates such vocabulary. He wishes Luke could live in a home like his where no one would ever dream of being that mean to each other. This is not pity. Pity breeds feelings of superiority. This is empathy. Peter has imagined himself in Luke’s life and he does not envy him. He realizes that the pain he has felt from Luke is only a glimpse into the pain Luke lives with regularly. I teach Peter to tell Luke, “I won’t talk to you that way, ever. We can be friends and you can trust that I won’t be mean to you.” If this sounds like hogwash to you, you’re wrong. I’ve seen it happen.
As for Luke, the journey is obviously longer and harder, which is another reason why it’s important to teach the Peters of the world that nothing is personal. Meanwhile, Luke gets a different form of guidance all together. I do expect him to apologize, but not in the way you may think. His apology comes in the form of an act of kindness towards Peter. Luke wants to be seen as kind and he doesn’t know how to break the cycle of being seen as the “bully”. There are real bullies out there, but I believe there are far fewer than the statistics claim. Luke is not a bully. Luke is a child who has not been given enough opportunities to do the right thing and have it be noticed.
When I approach Luke about his language, he is quick to pass the buck. “My brother talks to me like that all the time. Big deal,” he says.
“I believe you when you say it’s normal to you, Luke. I don’t believe you though when you say it’s no big deal,” I reply.
“Whatever. Everybody talks like that. Peter is just a baby,” he accuses.
“Actually, Peter is not used to being spoken to like that at all, Luke. That’s why it hurts him so deeply. When he leaves school, he goes home to a relatively peaceful evening. He and his brother get along really well and his parents treat each other respectfully.” I share this information with Luke compassionately. I see the sadness in his eyes as he takes in this information. I have just confirmed for him that he’s right to feel angry and hurt by the way he gets treated at home. It may seem like I am being callous by pointing out to Luke how Peter has it better than him, but quite the opposite is true. I am giving him the opportunity to choose better for himself. By knowing that a happier option is possible and actually exists, he can imagine that future for himself and eventually break the cycle of pain. I continue, “Luke, I get why you’re angry and I get why you lash out at others. I wish I could make your home life more peaceful. Maybe as you get older, you will be able to teach your family some of the lessons that I am teaching you. Until then, what I can do for you is create a classroom that only allows for kindness and compassion. This way, you have a place to go to everyday where you know nobody is going to call you names or yell at you. It means you get to let your guard down and practice treating others the way you wish to be treated and you can trust that they will return the kindness because I will not accept any less from anyone in this room. This is what I have been talking about all year when I say first and foremost we must take care of each other.” (Now imagine what will happen when this expectation is upheld not just by individual teachers, but as a schoolwide and boardwide philosophy…wow.)
I won’t lie to you. As I am writing this story my eyes are welling up with tears as the faces of all the Lukes I have taught appear in my mind’s eye. My heart breaks for these kids. They are on their way to being the bullies of our schools and our workplaces unless the people on the front lines do something about it. They need compassion. I am not talking about giving them permission or excuses for their behavior. I have major “tête-a-tête”s with the Lukes of my life. But all of my words always come from a place of love. I tell them, “I care about you. I believe not only in your ability but also in your desire to do better and to be better. I would not put all of this energy into correcting your behavior and showing you a better way if I did not care about you.” I have said to my most challenging students, “You exhaust me! I am completely drained. And I refuse to give up on you. If you think you can just push me away, you are sorely mistaken. If you think you can be so mean to me that I will just give up, you are wrong. I care too much about you. I care more than you can imagine. I will get you to understand and to trust me when I say there is a better way for you. Do not underestimate my patience and my stubbornness.”
I am not delusional. I know I will not “fix” all of my students’ challenging behaviors. But I will hold my ground and stand up for what’s right. As my dad used to say, “Pick your battles and when you do, make sure you win.”
Our prime purpose in this life is to help others and if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them. – Dalai Lama