The little boy is standing on a platform with a monkey bar in front of him. He is too short to make it, too fat to be athletic and he hates heights. He has no choice but to jump.
The boy steals a glance at the three sniggering, bigger boys behind him and then at the muddy puddle below the platform. He braces himself to jump. Just as he takes off, he feels a hard kick on his rump. Hands and legs flailing, he falls face first into the filthy puddle.
It is more than 20 years since that winter morning but I still remember. It was a big day for me and I missed an important competition final. The bullies thought it was hilarious. I cried myself to sleep. The bullies won that day…again.
Letting your child out into a world where a bully lurks in every corner can be terrifying. Even more terrifying is the thought of your child becoming a bully. We have all read news reports of student suicides or accidental deaths caused by jokes that went too far; jokes that were not funny to begin with.
Bullying can color your school memories a nightmarish hue. I used to dread going to school. I hated the very physical ‘playtime’ when I would be shoved around, punched, and kicked. One such playful kick broke my spine. I was lucky to be able to walk again. I was lucky I wasn’t suicidal.
Most times, the signs are clear to see if you are watching your kids. Bruises or torn clothes. Personal belongings that are damaged or ‘lost’. Constant requests for more pocket money or even stealing (because the bully needs to be paid off.) Sudden changes in personality, including and especially, reluctance to go to school or to play.
The best way to counter bullying is to empower your child to handle the situation themselves.
One popular technique is to teach your children basic self-defence. That’s a great start. But don’t forget to also teach your child to use these skills to only defend and never to attack. Remind them to rely on ‘the system’ – parents, school authorities, responsible adults, the law — when possible, to counter the bully.
Most importantly, ensure that your child is comfortable with the idea of talking about bullying. Teach your child to properly articulate complaints and even gather support from peers.
Step in yourself only when ‘the system’ fails. But support your child through it all.
Being the Bully
In time, the little boy grew up and became more confident. Bullies bypassed him for easier prey. One day, he saw someone else being bullied. Something snapped in him and he attacked the bully with everything he had. Words, wit and sheer wickedness. He reduced the bully to tears. It was extremely satisfying.
It was a strange transition for me. Over time, this bully-the-bully exercise became a habit, and then an addiction. It continued for a long time, until one day a friend held up a mirror to me. I had become a bully myself, one of the worst.
Your child becoming the bully is a serious problem too. This habit of easy domination becomes part of their personality and they might grow into dysfunctional adults. The psychology of a bully is complex and varied, but the outcome is always the same, mindless, childish cruelty, that is a whole lot worse than the adult kind.
Observe how other children behave around your child. Do they seem scared or too respectful? Does your child turn up with unexplained new possessions? Listen to other children’s parents if and when they complain. How serious or genuine are these complaints?
If you catch it early, you might be able to help. Instead of punishing them, talk to them. Can you get them to think differently? Teach your child to use their innate dominating personality or strength to protect others, and reward such behaviour. It’s easier to re-channel than stop such traits.
Nurture your child’s personality. Teach them to be secure in who they are, so that they don’t participate in games of domination and violence. Most importantly, don’t use any bullying tactics yourself. Most bullies learn from their parents.
Finally, if you find yourself unable to influence your little bully’s alarming behavior, seriously consider taking your child to a counsellor. Yes, it is that serious a problem.
Finding a Balance
Over time, I moved towards enabling the bullied rather than fighting battles for them. I also started trying to better understand the bullies themselves. I’m still working on it. Old scars and habits run deep. That’s how it is with bullying. And that’s just one more reason why we need to keep our children safe from this menace.