The Elephant in the Room: How Kids Learn to Bully

Recently, I attended a school meeting to discuss progress and create plans for an energetic, kind, insightful fourth grader.

The teachers, school counselor, parents and principal intently discussed accommodations that would help this student stay organized and on task. The conversation flowed naturally into the child’s needs during non-classroom portions of the day, such as recess, lunch and bus rides. Reluctantly, bravely, the parents began to share the difficulty their child was experiencing during these unstructured periods of time.

Tears flowed. Anger surfaced.

The team refocused the discussion on what one researcher calls “a pervasive public health problem.”

Bullying.

The parents described specific examples of social aggression…exclusion, rumor-spreading, teasing. The staff listened intently, and somewhat incredulously. “We had no idea this was going on…” And that is understandable. Bullying can be incredibly subtle–even silent–and quite easy to miss.

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As the team discussed a plan to address this issue, a team member ruefully asked, “Where do they learn this?”

At that moment, a glossy magazine on the corner of the table caught my eye:

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And then I knew the answer.

While this Time cover may be construed as clever, it has been perceived as insulting, unkind and just plain mean. Bullying.

Most kids don’t need to have a subscription of Time to learn the subtle tactics of social aggression…they have adults in their schools, churches and neighborhoods that will model mastery for them in real life.

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Think about the kinds of things they hear…

“Did you see the Halloween costumes Alice made for her kids? Sheesh. Talk about elaborate. She’s clearly got too much time on her hands…”

“Hey…thanks for inviting us to your timeshare for spring break. It’s going to be SO much fun. Are the Donaldsons and Hansons coming, too? All our kids are going to have a great time on the beach…” (said in front of those who were not included)

“Have you noticed the Margaret’s kids? They are OUT of control. Wow. I heard the police took the oldest in for drug possession. Margaret’s really got her hands full. Bless her heart.”

“Hey, I want you to pray for Marty. He just can’t seem to keep a job…he got fired AGAIN! But I’m telling you so you’ll pray for them. It’s not gossip.”

We’re the Elephant in the Room.
I am.
You are.

And our little elephants are watching and listening…
And everyone knows…elephants remember everything.

Photo credits: eonline; images.smh;mycolormusic.

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Shooting in Chardon: Searching for the right “mettle” detectors

I had a long list of “to-do’s” this morning, but my plans have been thwarted by a local-turned-national news story; there has been a shooting at Chardon High School. Chardon is an idyllic town very near to our own. I have worked with families there, and have colleagues who teach there. I listened this morning as a local news team interviewed a mother whose son had texted her from the locked-down cafeteria. The panic rose like mercury in her voice until a sob escaped. I can’t fathom that intensity of distress. Nor can I wrap my mind around the horror of learning that my child had been shot and life-flighted to Metro, our trauma center…or the unimaginable, crushing shock of grief at hearing that my child had died.

As my mind spirals, I also wonder about the pain of learning that my child had entered the school this morning, taken a gun from his coat, and pulled the trigger.

Newscasters have repeatedly asked this morning if Chardon has installed metal detectors in order to protect the students. I suppose this is a fair question, as our human minds try to make sense of this tragedy. We try hard to find a breach of security that allowed danger in, so we can understand and prevent more damage. We woefully shake our heads, bemoaning the fact that schools are supposed to be a “safe harbor,” and a “sanctuary of learning.”

The reality is, though, that we’re searching for the wrong metal detectors.

We could, as a reaction to today’s events, install metal detectors at every door to every classroom in every school. However, we won’t be able to prevent the kind of wounds that are inflicted daily in our schools, neighborhoods and even our homes…the snide comments, the eye-rolling, the exclusion and bullying that leave lasting emotional and spiritual wounds. According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, 88% of students in grades 7-12 report that they have witnessed online bullying and  done nothing.

BUT…This means that 12% reacted, and did something or said something to stop the bullying. Knowing what teens risk when they stand up to their peers, this takes tremendous fortitude and bravery. It takes mettle.

And that’s the kind of mettle we need to detect, reinforce and encourage in our young people. We need to model it as well, so that our kids can see us standing up to those who are needlessly hurtful and show them how to build each other up. And, we need to demonstrate how to reconcile, find common ground, and form positive relationships that grow healthy communities.

To our friends in Chardon, we can’t rightly imagine…but we will pray for healing in your community as you work through this tragedy.

And we’ll pray that we have the mettle to change things for the better.