Dear Parents, Don’t Be An Unintentional Bully
With the school year upon us (or fast approaching) I’ve been seeing a lot of anti-bullying sentiment popping up on Facebook. I thought I would throw my hat in the ring with my experience.
I was not a cute first grader. Clothes didn’t fit my chubby body in the way they fit the adorable girls in my class. My hair was short cropped and permed and stuck out in every direction. I spent most of my time reading books or playing make believe with the one friend I had (who did not go to the same school), instead of playing sports. I was clumsy, and artsy, and precocious, and no one really knew what to do with me.
I came from the wrong side of town too. Each elementary school district covered a certain geographic area, my apartment building, one of the only apartment buildings in my upper middle class suburb of capes and colonials, sat on the cusp. So while most of my classmates lived within blocks of each other in houses, I was on the lonely outskirts in an isolated building with no other children.
I also came from dreaded full-day kindergarten, the kind for kids whose parents had to work and couldn’t pick them up mid-way through the day. I was transported from that world into one awash in a sea of stay-at-home mothers and children who had all known each other since Pre-K.
I was immediately a target for my peers. I was teased mercilessly about my hair, my weight, my not-so-nice clothing, my penchant for reading, being “poor”, for getting boobs first, for being taller than everyone else, and every other slightly out of the ordinary characteristic I had (and there were a lot).
I’m guessing the parents and teachers felt it was “kids being kids”, but I wish someone had intervened or said something so I wouldn’t have spent the first three years of elementary school crying. However, it’s not the taunts of my classmates that I particularly remember it’s the more insidious rumors, speculation, and outright humiliation inflicted upon me by some of their mothers.
I’m a pretty well-adjusted and successful adult, largely due to the few supportive people in my early life and an innate sense of resilience that I am lucky to have. I bring the topic of parental bullying up not because I feel the need for therapeutic purge, but rather to save other kids who might not have the same coping skills and support that I miraculously had.
My home life was less than ideal, I had an chaotic alcoholic father and a mother who worked constantly to keep up with his gambling debts and other mounting bills. There was rarely peace in my home and always an undercurrent of anxiety.
I was a strong student and I loved to learn, so school did provide some level of relief and routine. Getting lost in books was one of my favorite past times and I was never shy about answering questions in class. Despite the constant teasing I did very well in school during the first year and was happy to have a focus for my restless energy.
It wasn’t until the end of my first year in school that the accusations started to fly. I overheard one mother loudly whisper to her children “She smokes, stay away from her.” It soon became a wild rumor all around the school that second grade me was a dirty dirty smoker. I even got sent to the principals office, completely confused, for smoking. The truth was that my parents were heavy smokers and consequently all of my clothing smelled. I have no doubt that these women knew enough to put two and two together, but decided to perpetuate the gossip that a 7 year-old-girl was puffing away, because in their eyes physically and socioeconomically I wasn’t a proper companion for their children.
I joined Brownies in second grade, our troop leader was the mother of twins who were some of my greatest tormentors. She also choose to berate me on any occasion she had. When all the girls were being loud she would single me out, if we were camping and up late at night I was the one she would punish. She lead a campaign of misery which ended with my intoxicated father coming in to a Girl Scout meeting and yelling at her and the girls who were harassing me. Obviously this was mortifying and didn’t help solve the problem, but things had escalated to the point where even my totally checked out father felt the need to intervene.
There were other instances as well, mothers whispering that I was a slut, as if it wasn’t already difficult enough to have gone through puberty in third grade. They criticized my morals, my weight, my poverty and it all came back to me in playground banter from their children “My mother says you…”
Why would 20 and 30-something women pick on a child? I’ve thought about this a lot, because I simply can’t imagine doing it. I think there were many factors at play for these young mothers. I was an outsider in a very tight knit enclave, I was strange, my family did not fit well into the system of norms that had been established in that community. Also, frankly, I think they were bored. I could go on and on.
I’m sure people reading would never participate in parental bullying intentionally. But sometimes things slip, and these seemingly minor transgressions can have an impact far greater than you might imagine. Don’t make snap judgements about a child’s life and their character. Be mindful what you say about other children around your own children. If you hear parents facilitating rumors shut them down. If a child is exhibiting some dangerous out of the ordinary behavior whispering behind their back is not going assist them in getting the help they might need. I could have used an ally, and so can many other children.