Leslie Blanchard at Huffington Post has written a truly fantastic article about stopping bullying before it even begins ("My Worst Nightmare — What If I Accidentally Raise The Bully?").
I firmly believe we’ve got to start to address our country’s bullying epidemic right at the heart; by re-defining bullying at its very core. To me, the rejection and complete lack of interest my daughter and her “clique” displayed toward Bethany was the beginning of a subtle type of bullying. It is true, (confirmed to me by Bethany’s mom and teachers), that there was no overt unkindness or name-calling etc., just rejection; a complete lack of interest in someone they wrongly concluded had nothing to offer them. After experiencing childhood myself and raising five of my own, I’ve been on every side of the bullying social dynamic, and I am convinced this is where it begins. A casual assessment and quick dismissal of an outsider.
How she goes on to address the problem is equally great. She doesn't direct her child to be "nice" or, worse, try and force her to be friends with the target of her rejection. She simply tells her daughter to get to know the girl.
As for my girl, I instructed her that she was going to invest some time and energy getting to know Bethany. I assigned her to come home from school the next day and report three cool things she found out about Bethany, that she didn’t previously know.
While getting to really know someone is certainly not a guarantee that you will become friends, it makes it almost impossible to continue to be mean to them. Just that thin thread of connection–knowing something personal and interesting about someone–makes it harder to view them as "other" or "below you" in the social hierarchy, and can prevent some otherwise unkind social interactions.
Seeing the great and not so great parts of your kids
What was most striking to me about this article was her frank assessment of her daughter's behavior combined with a firm faith in her goodness and ability to handle hard social situations well.
One quick phone call to Bethany’s mother that same evening confirmed my worst fears. My daughter and her posse were using everything short of a can of “Cling Free” to rid themselves of the annoying Bethany.
It's often hard to view your children clearly enough to spot problems and take action. For many of us, we see our kids through eyes of love, feel like we need to be firmly on their side, or simply want them to be happy and popular.
And sometimes it's just hard to figure out what's going on at all. It's not like our kids come home and say "I've been rejecting a new kid at school in a way that's not only hurtful but might lead me to form bad habits or even become a bully". Instead–if we're lucky–they'll just drop hints. All that Leslie had to go on in this story was that her daughter said that a girl in her class was being "annoying". Often it feels like it takes Sherlock Holmes' powers of observation combined with an advanced degree in mental health to figure out what's going on.
Teaching your kids to be open
At the end of the day, though, I think this story just affirms that parents engaging and talking with their kids is what makes the difference. Leslie seems so insightful and decisive in how she dove in and guided this situation. But even when we blunder into a situation, flail around, and don't parent perfectly we get there eventually. It's hard to stick with it and stay engaged when it feels like we have absolutely no idea what we're doing. But just staying engaged can be enough if we hold on to a few basic truths. In cases like this, just holding firm to the ideas that everyone is worth being known on a basis deeper than surface level and that first impressions can lead us astray is probably enough to help us help our kids.
Besides, giving children the opportunity to understand this at a young age can help them get along with and relate to others later in life. It may also open the doors for some wonderful friendships.
It's worth reading the whole article, especially for the happy ending. Hearing about a kid who, with the help of her mother, learned to have a diverse group of friends and find them in unlikely places is inspiring. (You can also find Leslie on Twitter and her blog).