I am a special needs mom. This is mostly just code for “woman who realizes daily that she was wrong about all the things.” Navigating childhood through the eyes of a little boy that the world wasn’t set up for is a rather humbling experience, y’all.
I always hold his hand tightly, only to feel him slip from my grip moments later. Inevitably, he’s tripped over an obstacle I didn’t see. I am always confused, searching in vain for the trip wire. I miss the bombs and landmines stretching to the horizon because they are in his path, not mine.
I didn’t even give that path a cursory glance before he was born. It runs perpendicular to mine, and so many people are on it with him, but I never stopped to really see. I didn’t avoid it on purpose. Life is just a big place, and I didn’t think to look. I’m looking now, and there is so much I can show you.
Today, I want to share my view of the bullying crisis at its earliest stages. I have a new perspective on the subject and a tangible way we can keep it out of our elementary schools. Stick with me.
My oldest child, now in fifth grade, battles serious generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and OCD, and he has high-functioning autism. I scored floor seats to the progression from easily accepted kindergartener to lonely fourth grade outsider. Last fall, during a tear-filled conversation with him on our staircase, I had an epiphany. I finally connected the dots, and the game changed.
The Real Bully
When you hear the word “bully,” what image comes to mind? For me, it was always an oversized boy shoving a much smaller kid into a locker. He always had a posse of equally large and frightening dudes with him. Maybe you conjure the sneering face of a mean girl, throwing vile insults into the face of a quiet and introverted classmate. Most of us picture someone being overtly abusive, either physically or verbally, doing outwardly horrific things to someone who can’t defend him- or herself.
Catching and punishing that bully does NOTHING to stop the bullying epidemic. It won’t change the toxic environment in the least. That bully is a merely a fraction of the problem.
The cutthroat social atmosphere in our schools is flourishing, and the problem is much bigger than the obvious offenders. Look at your image of the bully and his victim. Now zoom out. They are surrounded on all sides by a massive force that grows more powerful with each passing day. This easy-to-miss tormentor is the main power supply for the bully we all recognize. It is the oppressor that can’t be caught, much less punished. And it’s hiding in plain sight. I’m talking about the gulf of indifference, a force that insulates and protects the obvious bully and his prey. Indifference is the most lethal weapon in a bully’s arsenal.
Your child is in that gulf. So are you. And it’s okay to admit it.
Don’t flip, y’all. I’m definitely in there with you, and so are my kids. We have ALL been in the zone of indifference before. I hate to break it to you, but humans kind of suck sometimes. It would be super handy to be infallible, but no such luck. If we could all just publicly acknowledge this fact, have a group hug over the embarrassment, and move forward, life would be so much better.
Ask the mother of any child who has been bullied, ignored, or left behind where the trouble started. If you think this is an issue born in the middle school years, you are gravely mistaken. Elementary school lunch and recess are The Hunger Games, folks. Indifference is born there. It would take multiple posts to tell you all of the outrageous things my son heard over the years that left me speechless. Some of the worst tales involved children being ridiculed at the hands of a classmate — my son included. Others involved the masses of other children who didn’t know what to do in those moments and turned the other way — my son included. This is when I pulled my head out of the sand.
How Bullies Get Built
Nobody likes bullying. Everyone wants it to stop. But here’s the kicker: EVERY parent of a great kid assumes her child is not the problem. (Sidebar: Did you know that 167 percent of parents have great kids?) This creates a lot of concerned bystanders, but literally nobody on the battlefield. Because humans aren’t perfect and children can’t possibly know what they haven’t been taught, it is entirely plausible that even the best kids are unknowing contributors to the bullying problem at large. THIS is the secret spot where the solution lives.
The groundwork for successful social interaction, which is not an inherent skill, is laid during the elementary school years. It all starts at the lunch table and the playground out back, yet this is when children are left to their own devices. Seriously, y’all? How did this happen? You wouldn’t send kids into a math lesson without a teacher, so why do we throw them into the deep end of proper social skills without a leader? Teachers are superheroes, but they can’t be in 20 places at once, bless their amazing souls. One or two of them keeping watch on an entire grade level won’t facilitate the kind of instruction our kids need.
Due to length, this article was divided into two parts. Click on the link to continue reading part two of Chalna’s post, “How We Can Fix the Bullying Problem in Elementary School. For Real.”