When my second grader came home from school last year uttering the words, “Max is bullying me…” my immediate reaction was arguably typical for a trial lawyer who spends his days fending off attacks from opposing counsel and fighting for every-day individuals to be treated fairly; I was defensive and perplexed. Could an eight-year-old at a great school, full of engaged families really be confronting bullying?
As images of playground ruffians from my junior high days flashed in my head, I listened to my son explain what was happening. As he described it, Max made fun of his clothing and the food he brought for lunch. Max purposefully tripped him during soccer games, and pushed him out of line as the kids walked to class. While the behavior my son was experiencing was far different than what I dealt with, he was correct in his use of the term. By being made to feel badly and scared, he was being bullied.
This incidence put me on a path of awareness about the issue and the intensive efforts made by schools and other institutions to craft policies around bullying. Verbal and physical intimidation can happen as easily in second grade as it can in middle and high school. It happens in public and private schools, and to students from all types of family backgrounds. As children and young adults grapple with power imbalances and other social challenges, bullying becomes an unwanted consequence. Schools and institutions are positioned on the front line in dealing with the issue.
The most effective bully-free policies in schools immediately target the negative behavior, gather related facts and support the individuals involved. In the process, students are taught to advocate for and empower themselves, to show kindness and compassion towards others, to take responsibility for their actions, and to grow self-esteem. If there is any silver lining, bullying presents opportunities to instill some important life skills. As we work to change societal norms, expectations and attitudes towards bullying, we can take away critical lessons about conflict resolution, self-respect and empathy, for ourselves and our children.