Friday, September 21, 2012

Bullies, By Mary O'Connell

     Once upon a time, my eldest son, Kyle, went to a new school for first grade. We had just switched from the large public school to a small Catholic school, so naturally I assumed that all the children there would get along beautifully (you know, those good moral values and all that Holy Spirit flowing around….)  Imagine my surprise when Kyle came home every day complaining about a boy who was making his life miserable. “Sean pushes me,” “Sean yells too loud,” “Sean won’t let me use the slide,” and finally, “I’m afraid of Sean.”
     Who was this Sean kid, bullying my beautiful boy?!  And why was this behavior tolerated by the teacher? I wondered.  I pictured a big brute of a kid, pushing kids down and stealing their lunch money. Finally after a couple of weeks of my son complaining, I approached the teacher, Mrs. Knoll, after school. I told her that Kyle was being terrorized by Sean. She smiled a slightly amused, benevolent smile as she pointed Sean out to me. My tall-for-his-age son towered over this boy who was the smallest kid in the class. The image that came to mind was of a Great Dane fearful of a Chihuahua. She explained that Sean was a very exuberant and nice little boy, and her observation was that he really liked Kyle a lot. She told me that Sean was learning the correct way to approach Kyle to ask him to play, and that her best advice for Kyle was to tell Sean if he needed some space.
     It was not the response I had been looking for, but seemed a very thoughtful observation, so I did just as she recommended. I told Kyle that Sean wanted to be his friend yet sometimes was a little too excited, and Kyle should feel free to tell him to tone it down; if it became too much, he should ask Mrs. Knoll for help.  Soon, I began to hear glorious stories of Kyle’s adventures with Sean, and their friendship continued all the way through 8th grade.  Sean became one of my favorite kids to have around… thoughtful, articulate, and funny. It still makes me smile to think that I had thought of him as a bully. Boy, did I have that wrong!
Kyle, Sean and Sean's twin sister, Caroline at their 8th grade graduation.
     The Social Arts…not necessarily a realm of black and white, that’s for sure.  This weekend the Journal Sentinel ran an article in the Business Section about a hot new trend -- businesses that teach kids how to deal with bullies. (Apparently, karate is an important element.) Parents are increasingly concerned about bullies, and schools are implementing Zero Tolerance policies for bullying. This concern is, of course, a good thing. Too many of us have memories of being terrorized by other kids at school and no adult seemed to care or be able to stop it.
     My question is: What about the “bully?”  Could he simply be a nice little kid like Sean who is working on how to approach a friend to play? Is it possible the two-year-old biter is not necessarily a violent child, but one who is simply going through an age-appropriate stage of learning to deal with frustration without all the necessary language skills?  Perhaps the 5-year-old girl who excludes her friend from play is learning how to manage her emerging social skills and her sometimes overwhelming feelings.
     At LifeWays, a large portion of our caregivers’ time is spent helping children through these stages of learning how to live with other human beings. Children don’t come out of the womb magically knowing how to share, play, negotiate, and use their words to get what they want. The process of helping little ones learn these skills involves a lot of modeling, some coaching, some stepping back and letting children struggle a bit, and always observing to see what the challenges are and how best to help the children negotiate the sometimes rocky terrain of the social arts.
     I’m forever grateful that somehow, all those years ago, I was able to see the picture Mrs. Knoll was painting for me of Sean. In many ways, that lesson is one that has really helped me in my work with children: it’s important to look beneath the surface of every child’s behavior struggles to get to know the remarkable person inside.

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