Beware the bully label
The other day as we were driving home, apropos of nothing, my 5-year-old son said, “Mama, when you yell at me, or use your mean voice, it doesn’t show me that you love me.”
That statement made me grateful I hadn’t ever received one of those proverbial mother-of-the-year awards, because it would no doubt have been revoked in some awkward fashion.
He kept looking out the window, so it was hard to read his face in the rearview mirror.
“What makes you say that?” I asked, taking a deep breath to avoid trying to justify myself or dismissing his feelings just because they made me feel like a jerk.
“I don’t want you to be a bully,” he said.
I took another deep breath, then asked him to tell me what he thought a bully was.
“When someone is mean, or when they don’t want to play with you, or when you say I can’t play a game on your phone,” he said.
“Yeah, dat is mean,” piped up my 3-year-old from his side of the backseat.
I’ve been bullied myself, and I mean the kind involving spitting, name-calling and clothes-ripping attacks triggering nightmares. I actually tried to kill myself because of it in seventh grade, so I’m all for calling out bullies.
However, in order to best combat bullying, we have to define it clearly. We must guard against watering down our definition to the point it is meaningless.
Bullying is the use of force or coercion to abuse or intimidate others. Often habitual, it may be facilitated by an imbalance in social or physical power.
Setting limits on screen time doesn’t fit the bill. Not by a long shot.
I took the opportunity to tell the boys that if someone is making them feel bad, they need to look at the situation and see what they can do differently.
I know some people would call that blaming the victim. But as an advocate for victims of domestic violence, I don’t buy that.
Blaming the victim is asking a rape victim what she was wearing. Asking my son to consider his own role in his suffering is essential to his ability to change it, though that’s not something I understood myself at the time.
Even after my family moved, enabling me to leave the worst of the bullying behind me, I’d still face situations that sent me home in tears. And each time, my dad would ask me what I did to contribute to the problem.
“You never take my side!” I would cry. “You don’t love me!”
But the opposite was true, I realize now. He loved me enough to teach me that in every encounter, we play a role. If we can look back and learn from exchanges we don’t like, we can handle them differently next time.
So I think, as important as it is to have conversations about bullying, we need to be aiming to raise resilient children capable of sticking up for themselves and for each other.
I know the damage bullying can do. I still hear the echoes of young voices taunting me. But I now have the perspective of distance to know what I could have been done differently in dealing with those encounters.
Those are lessons I’d like to leave with my boys, who, by the way, seem to have forgiven me for the aforementioned yelling.
Sam, who appears to do his best thinking in the car, described an interaction he had with another boy. “You tell me to look at other people to see how they are feeling,” he said, but this boy “didn’t even notice I was making a face to show I was mad.”
“Not everyone has learned to watch other people for cues about feelings,” I said. “Well, I wish everyone had you for a mom,” Sam responded.
Who knows? Maybe I’m still in the running for that coveted award after all.
Contact Nathalie Hardy at email@example.com.