Justifiable concern has been expressed about the exposure of children to bullying on social media and in school. Less attention is paid to those who do the bullying, and how to address what is clearly destructive both for them and their targets. It would seem that education has an important role to play here, since both the bullied and the bullies are usually in the same classrooms or schools.
Often the children bullied are those who are vulnerable in some way, because of differences in appearance, personality or behavior. This does not mean they are responsible for being bullied. Rather it points to the need to teach children to be accepting of differences, and to help them develop understanding and empathy.
My attention was called to this issue by my 10-year-old granddaughter, who was reading a book called “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio (Random House Children’s Books). She explained that it was about a boy who was born with extreme facial abnormalities. He was entering a mainstream school for the first time in the fifth grade, and was being taunted and bullied by his classmates.
She told me that she, herself, had been in class with an autistic boy. Before the child entered the class, the teacher had a discussion with them explaining his problems, and how they might be noticed in his behavior. For example, he might repeat certain things, or ask the same questions again, and they should ignore this and not make fun of him. After that, despite his behavior he was accepted as part of the class.
I asked what if anything had helped Auggie, the protagonist of the “Wonder” story. My granddaughter explained that it was the fact that two boys in the class befriended him. This gave Auggie needed support, and also became a model for other children as well. The school principal also made a difference. Children were sent to the principal when their behavior was offensive, and they were made to apologize. Apologies were hard for some kids because they didn’t think they had done anything wrong. But in the end, they learned not to be mean.
This might suggest that apologies were a punishment, and that punishment is the way to teach kids. A more useful way of understanding this, however, is in the way respected authority figures can influence the behavior of children. Such individuals not only set an example, but communicate what is valued in the behavior of others, and what is not.
It is interesting that some kids found it hard to apologize because they “didn’t think they had done anything wrong.” Parents are familiar with the experience of a young child pointing to a handicapped person, or making loud comments like, “That man has a funny nose.” Young children are just noticing what is obvious, as they do about many things around them, and are unaware both of the impact, and of the social inappropriateness of their comments.
Since the children in the story were in the fifth grade, one would hope they were no longer behaving out of such unawareness. But this points to the role of parents, as well as educators, in helping children develop their innate capacity for empathy from early ages on. Although as parents we are embarrassed by children’s growing awareness of differences between people, the times this happens are actually teaching moments for us, and learning opportunities for our children.
As parents, we can play a big part in educating our children to become the friends who support, rather than those who bully those who are different.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.