Social Question

Seek's avatar

Parenting: What is the best way for a young child to handle bullying?

Asked by Seek (34709points) January 22nd, 2013

I was not present for this event, but here’s how it was described to me:

My son, “E”, has long, blonde, curly hair that he’s very proud of. It’s never been cut, because he insists he loves it (evidenced by his patiently sitting through daily combing sessions like a champ). Because of this, he’s often mistaken for a girl. Most of the time, it’s no big deal. He simply says, “I’m not a girl. My name is E.” and people move on, for the most part.

My husband, Mitch, took my son, E (4 years old), to the park. There was another family there, with three kids: 5 year old girl, 6 and 8 year old boys.

At first all was well, until the little girl said something that caused E to use his go-to polite correction while the four of them were climbing on a foam animal sculpture thing.

The boys overheard it. Cue relentless teasing. “You’re a girl! You’re a girl! Girly-girl! Girly-girl!”

The sister told them “No, he’s a boy”.

My husband told the kids, “Really, you can use his name, it’s E.”

The six year old boy wouldn’t stop. “Girly-girl, you’re a gi-irl!”

My son shouts “I’m A BOY!” and shoved the kid. Hard. He fell (a whole two feet) to the ground and started crying.

The 8 year old ran to his mom to tell. “Hey, that kid pushed brother!”

SuperMom (who had been neck-deep in her iPhone until this point) storms over to my husband demanding justice.

My husband told her “Your boys were picking on my son, calling him a girl, he tried to talk his way out, and they kept picking on him. So he defended himself.”

Her: “Maybe you should cut his hair!”

Him: “Maybe you should teach your kids some respect. They want to call my son a girly-girl, but as far as I can see you have a crybaby and a tattle-tale, and they’re twice his age and size.”

Her: (Fumes and takes her kids and leaves)

Now, what do I do here? “No, E, it’s not good to push people, but I’m glad you tried to talk your way out first. I understand that you were insulted and that you’re proud of your hair and that you are a boy, but I don’t want you to think it’s an insult to be a girl – that being a girl is somehow worse than being a boy. Yes, they were mean but no, fighting isn’t the best way to solve your problems…”

Since this situation is likely going to occur considerably more often as my son ages, how should I talk to him about it? What suggestions can I give him to avoid physical confrontation? Does he have to take the bullying?

I was relentlessly teased as a youngster all through high school, and never learned the “right way” to deal with it, so any advice would be appreciated.

((This is in Social, so feel free to discuss the topics of bullying and gender discrimination openly)).

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30 Answers

cookieman's avatar

I think it was handled just fine.

My daughter was being bullied in first grade regularly. As we taught her, she asked the boy to stop politely, two or three times. No joy.

Then she told the teacher, who mentioned it once to boy. He continued unabated and the teacher never followed up again despite my daughter and us mentioning it to her.

My daughter, frustrated asked me what to do. I gave my advice.

The next time this boy tried it, my daughter whips around and whispers to him, “If you touch me again, I’ll break your hand.” Dead serious, staring him in the eye.

Scared the shit out of him. Never happened again.

Sometimes, polite words aren’t enough.

Fyrius's avatar

I don’t have a good solution, but experience teaches that turning the other cheek is a bad idea. No, of course he doesn’t have to take the bullying. In fact, I’d worry he could be contributing to more bullying by letting kids do it with impunity.

(P.S.: This isn’t a children’s issue, by the way. Plenty of adults have to put up with the exact same shit from other grown-ups. Except then it’s called sexual harrassment, or hate crime, or spouse abuse. Et cetera.)

tom_g's avatar

Ouch. First, I don’t have an answer. This is one of those “it’s f*cking difficult to be a parent” issues.

@Seek_Kolinahr: “Her: “Maybe you should cut his hair!””

I commend your husband for not losing his cool. My blood boiled while reading that.

I do think your son did the best he could do. First, he used words. When words didn’t work, he continued to stick up for himself.

I was the fat kid when I was young. The fat kid. Many people would call me “Fat [my last name]”. I didn’t quite know how to handle it in elementary school. I would get in frequent fights, but there was no real resolution. When I got to middle school, there were some kids in one of my first classes seeing how far they could push me by calling me names, etc. I exploded on them. I pinned one up against the wall and told another he was next. It stopped the name calling, but it was probably just because I was that crazy kid who could go all crazy on people. Note: I had to open up on people occasionally to remind them what kind of “crazy” damage I was capable of. It sucked.
So….this doesn’t answer your question, and it doesn’t even apply to your situation. But as you mentioned, this whole issue doesn’t necessarily go away anytime soon. I’d like to think that I will be able to continue to make sure my kids know how to balance sticking up for themselves with words, developing a level of security and calm that can withstand the occasional name calling, and be able to physically defend themselves when necessarily.

fremen_warrior's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr you seem to have handled things smoothly, I like your approach. If you want him to grow up bully-resistant, rename him Sue xD Seriously though, he needs to be able to make lots of friends, socialize, gain allies. It’s harder to bully a group. Good luck!

Shippy's avatar

“Ha ha ha ha ha !!! Yes!! I’m a girl!! You feel better now? OK, moving on….”

fremen_warrior's avatar

@Shippy something tells me you’ve never been bullied. It just doesn’t work that way.

geeky_mama's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr – I think your husband and son did the best they could. Especially if Mitch was able to face down that mom and explain what happened without yelling or raising his voice then he gets a gold star for perfect parenting in my book. The mom should have been watching her kids better and should have intervened and told them not to taunt your son – and honestly, that E tried to use his words first is tremendous for a 4 year old.

I think considering E is only 4 that explaining to him it’s not good to push or hit is best, and leave it at that. Even if he’s an advanced 4 yr. old he’s probably not going to fully understand why he shouldn’t be offended to be called a girl—because all he knows is it was said as a taunt and the intonation/tone of voice the kids was no doubt snotty. They could have said anything (e.g.“You’re a curly boy!”) and it would’ve been an insult because of the way they were saying it.

When our (now 15 yr old) daughter was really little she’d approach every kid on the playground and say: “Hey boy, wanna play?” This was when she was about 18 – 24 mo. old and honestly most kids had very little hair and unless it was really clear that they were girls she always guessed “boy”. But because she was saying it so nicely and she was approaching kids asking to play with them most of them just started playing – total non-issue.

Now that our kids are older (8, 11 and 15) we teach verbal “come backs” to try to give them a way out of a confrontation. (Esp. the 15 yr. old. High School kids are brutal.)

The reality is some kids come from homes that are messed up and sadly the kids that get hit at home (or ignored or neglected or verbally abused) seem to like to bully other kids at school or on the bus.
We’ve talked to our kids about this and explained that while they know that they’re safe at home and they have good parents who don’t call them names or scream at them or hit them not all kids are as lucky. I’ve since watched my 8 yr. old shut down a playground bully who was about to hit him by saying: “I’m sorry your parents must be so mean to you that you feel like you have to hurt smaller kids like me. I’m sad for you.” The mean boy was so stunned that he walked away without another word.

Seek's avatar

@geeky_mama Wow. Rock on, 8 year old.

tom_g's avatar

Another thing I forgot to mention (and it seems that you have already addressed it), is that I attempt to talk with my kids about content vs. intention. So, sure, there is nothing wrong with being a girl. But the intention of those punks was to hurt E. I hope – and I could be naive – that being able to consistently separate the content of attacks with the attacks themselves will allow them to be less hurtful.

I used to run a Destination Imagination group for kindergarten kids. One of the most common things a kid would say to someone was “you’re weird”. When it happened, I would usually take the opportunity to celebrate “weirdness”, because it is the antidote to the pedestrian and stagnant stench of the ordinary. After taking the sting out of the word – and turning it into an accidental compliment – there were often times to investigate the motivation of such comments. Once the kids were free to be “weird”, it was contagious. Just like being a “girl” or a “fag” can be. You don’t actually become a female or a homosexual. Rather, you become open and free to the entire spectrum of human experience and expression, rendering those terms meaningless.

CWOTUS's avatar

I like your husband’s defense of E – a lot – but I’d have an easier time prosecuting your son. The fact is that he responded to words with violence, albeit nothing more than “a shove in the playground”, but that’s the introduction of force and violence, and that’s what will get him in trouble. That was the initiation of force that could start a chain of escalating retribution.

So he has to learn how to counter “bad speech” with “better speech”, or learn how to simply ignore the insults, taunting, teasing (hardly rises to the level of bullying at this point). In fact, if you want him to be able to use force – which I don’t recommend, but different strokes for different folks and all – then you could teach him (and practice with him) to show so little regard and attention to the teasing that the teaser will either give up (we hope) or make the first shove himself, as he escalates his own teasing to, “Hey you! Listen to my nonsense and react!”

And at that point your son has the green light to go all gangsta on the physical bully. But he should also be mindful that when a playground fight starts, a boy’s long hair will really work to his disadvantage – as long-haired girls have known forever – because when someone grabs a handful of his hair they have leverage on his head and neck. And when there are two of them and they’re both bigger and older, well, he’s asking for trouble, and he’ll find it.

And not to criticize you heavily, because I think from what I’ve read here and elsewhere you’re a great mom, I would never have allowed my kids – as I was never allowed, and with good reason, I think – to have the final word in all things sartorial. Cut his hair.

Seek's avatar

@CWOTUS I cannot think of a good reason to cut his hair, other than caving to societal pressure to conform to the “Boy” standard. He likes his hair. I like his hair. Our family is involved in a subset of the community in which it is common for grown men to have long hair. My husband has long hair. I have long hair. Why should he be singled out and punished because some kid twice his age wants to be a jerk?

glacial's avatar

I know that cutting his hair is not the thing you’re seeking advice on, but for what it’s worth, I think that cutting his hair as a reaction to this event is a bad idea. I also think that not cutting his hair as a reaction to this event is a bad idea. If he decides that he wants to wear his hair shorter, whether to avoid confrontations or because he just doesn’t like it anymore, he should get to do that. He shouldn’t think that he needs to keep it because it’s a symbol of being brave for you. Let the hair have exactly the amount of importance that it is meant to have – which is none. It shouldn’t be a statement in either direction.

ucme's avatar

Her comment about your son getting his hair cut immediately identifies her as a shallow moron.
This being the case, i’d explain to him that although physical violence is wrong, some people are simply asking for it so it doesn’t count, it’s okay to point & laugh at them too.

burntbonez's avatar

I think there is no formula for this. It’s on a case by case basis. You seem to have done very well in this case.

The principles are fine. Use your words. But people can be pushed too far and those bullies needed to learn that. So did the mother.

I suspect that when your son goes to school, and everyone gets to know who he is, he’ll develop a posse, and that will make a difference. The problem here was there was a team of opponents (who belonged to the same family) and your boy had no allies except his father. He was isolated. So one thing to consider would be to go to the playground with friends. That would make it harder for opposing groups to identify him as isolated and targetable.

Judi's avatar

I don’t have an answer for you because I know exactly what your going through. The only think worse than being teased and picked on as a kid is watching it happen to your child. Hugs for him and you. I hate mean people.

CWOTUS's avatar

I’m with @glacial here: The hair shouldn’t be cut as a reaction to the incident, and neither should it be worn long in defiance of “norms”. I also don’t suggest that you cut his hair as any kind of punishment.

What I failed to express – which my parents almost never failed at – was, “I’m the parent, and you’re the child. I want your hair shorter, and so it shall be, despite your protest.” In the 60s I did protest, but since I was still a minor, I got Dad’s crew cut. (I do that by choice now.)

In any case, the hair is a whole side issue. This isn’t about hair, but about teasing and the escalation to violence, however mild.

Seek's avatar

@CWOTUS I understand.

For things that have a direct affect on his health and/or wellbeing, I’m fully ready to pull Mom rank. Yes, you’re going to eat your broccoli/brush your teeth/take your allergy medicine/wear your rain boots because I say so. But hair is hair. It’s there, it grows back, whatever. If he’s willing to take care of it/allow me to take care of it (he is only four), he can keep it how he likes. If ever he fights with me on whether it’s time to brush his hair (which can be painful and take quite some time), I ask him if he’d rather I cut it so he doesn’t have to endure the pain and hassle. The answer is invariably “no”, and a subsequent relaxation and submission to the hairbrush. If he’s willing to make that sacrifice, I think that an important lesson in responsibility is being learned.

CWOTUS's avatar

I completely agree.

Maybe you can extend that, then. As you note, he has to submit to your care and ministration (on your terms and schedule) when it comes to caring for his hair at his current age. You might also impress on him that he’s going to have to peacefully endure a certain amount of teasing from the nyet kultura, as well, on the same account.

KNOWITALL's avatar

I don’t have children, but starting junior high, one older girl tried to threaten me, and when I told my mom about it, crying, she told me I’d either have to take it always or stand up for myself. So the next day I stood up for myself and told her “to make me move” and she backed down.

Sometimes you do have to stand up for yourself, although if it was my child, I’d probably have a private conversation about his choices for his hair & name, and explain that his choices have repercussions and this is one he can deal with or not, as he wishes.

Unfortunately the name and the hair together make him seem androgynous, which could be pretty tough as the kid gets older.

YARNLADY's avatar

I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to be too polite in a case like this. Say right out, and encourage your boy to say “YOU’RE BEING A BULLY AND THAT’s BAD”.

blueiiznh's avatar

I think your side of things was handled very respectfully. That also includes the respectful push.

wundayatta's avatar

The boys in my son’s class last year all had long hair. My son refused to get his cut because he didn’t want to get “teased” for having it cut. It seems that having people make any comment at all was teasing.

My mother always said that “sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you.” It is actually true, but no one really seems to believe that any more. Just tell bullies they look foolish when they call you names. That’s a loser solution to a problem.

But sometimes, like on Fluther, no one seems to take on bullies. They just get lots of lurve from other people. In a case like that, it’s best just to ignore them.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I have dealt with my oldest (6) being bullied at school for wearing ‘girl shirts’ and his long hair so I have some experience on the matter. He never pushed anyone since we’re very anti-physical anything…but I took the teachers and the vice principal to task, wrote them some letters, explained how they’re supposed to handle bullying, provided pamphlets about LGBT stuff. Once they found out how I am and who I am, they decided they will deal with the kids bullying my son. They know, they know not to fuck with me or with my kid around gender- ‘deviant’ behavior.

As for your situation: You have to talk to him about gender norms and you have to explain that many people are raised with rigid ones, as are their kids. You have to say that he has every freedom to wear his hair however he wants but that he might get these ignorant remarks. He needs to learn to simply let them go and to learn how to fight these battles without expanding energy on them. This is important to learn, for anyone. I tell my kid, ‘Remember you can wear that ‘girl’ shirt today and you might get bothered for it. It is up to you to make the choice, are you into it or not? It’s okay if today you don’t want to deal with this world on this matter.’ And, really, don’t all of us who are queer or transgender or gender non-conforming or non-conforming in any way do that daily? I know I do. Oh, and check out my blog on my profile, it’s helpful.

Oh, and if you give me some time, I’ll find the letter I wrote to the school and upload it here.

Seek's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir Thank you so much. I was really hoping you’d chime in. And I’ve bookmarked your blog.

Great letter, too. Did you notice any particular steps being taken by the school? I am leaning toward homeschooling, mostly because Florida’s standards aren’t close to up to snuff. I am also concerned with the discipline structure which seems to do little more than put a mark on a bully’s file, and allow bullying to continue unabated.

As I said before, I was a victim myself (the year after Columbine, I was voted in high school slam-books [remember them?] “Person Most Likely to Blow Up the School”) and never dealt with it well. Spent way too many days curled up in the back of the Drama Club classroom in tears. I do not want that for my son. Sorry, @wundayatta but words and names do hurt. A lot. Enduringly.

CWOTUS's avatar

In defense of @wundayatta and anyone else who has ever used the sticks and stones line with kids, it’s an enduring myth, like the ones we tell kids about religion and Santa Claus, sometimes wishing it were true. So you say that to your kids the first few times they come home in tears, hoping that they can kind of internalize it and make it so… or that the problem will go away in a day or so, which is more often than not the case if the child can ignore the taunts long enough for the bullies to find a new, softer target.

But you’re right, @Seek_Kolinahr, a steady diet of that stuff is corrosive.

glacial's avatar

@CWOTUS “So you say that to your kids the first few times they come home in tears, hoping that they can kind of internalize it and make it so… or that the problem will go away in a day or so”

This is true. It isn’t the best or only answer… but it’s one tool in the box, you know? It can’t be 100% about nursing hurt feelings, or fixing the bullies (though that is very important). I’ve been reading a long thread in “Meta” about hurt feelings, and even if it’s not where they started, eventually everyone ends up saying “You’re going to have to get over this.” Similarly, as much as we want to or try to change other people’s behaviour, a kid being bullied will need to find a way to cope with whatever is being thrown at him. We all need to learn to survive in a world where not everyone plays nice, because not everyone does.

wundayatta's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr Sure names can hurt you, but you don’t have to let them hurt you. It is something that is under your control and under our children’s control, as well. We can choose to be bothered by what people say, or not.

Names can not physically hurt; names can only hurt psychologically. That’s a huge difference. As long as someone isn’t beating us up, but only calling us names, we have not sustained physical injury.

The psychological injury is under our control. My mother was teaching me not to let other people win when they call me names. I have learned that, and I get to choose when I’m bothered and when I am not bothered. I choose to let one person on fluther get to me, but no one else does. Why this one person can punch my buttons, I don’t know. And I could turn it off if I wanted to. I choose not to. Maybe because I think this person is an evil person. Willfully ignorant and malicious. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a cross to bear.

I tried to teach my kids similar things, but they faced different challenges growing up. Both were fairly popular so they didn’t face the kind of teasing I faced. Also they went to schools with a no bullying policy that they enforced very strictly.

Anyway, I think it’s a lesson worth passing on. As others have said, it’s a coping skill. It can help, and it can give children something to do, like a mantra, in order to defend themselves.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr I am not sure. I know he continues to wear the shirts and hasn’t had any issues, as of yet. As for the standards of education, anyone with half a brain will realize there is much to be worried about – so I supplement. He goes to Kumon twice a week and to a Russian school on Sundays. Both of these schools do a far better job than his public school and they give homework as well. Now, he’s doing much better.

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