Last night, my husband came home from work with a sad story to tell.
It seems he spent part of his day visiting a farmer near Cooperstown, North Dakota. As they talked about seed, weather and markets, a hearse drove by on the country road and past the farmer's house. The farmer shook his head, and proceeded to tell my husband about a young girl, sixteen years old, who had been bullied incessantly at school. Early that same morning, she wrote one final post to Facebook... and then took her own life.
There is talk now in North Dakota, about passing a law which would address the problem and make bullying a crime. The video which follows is part tribute to the young woman who took her life, and part rallying cry to the people of the state, in order to gain support for the legislation now being drafted.
As we are all shocked and saddened by this tragic loss of a young, beautiful life, it understandable that we want to band together and DO SOMETHING. Passing a law is symbolic and important... but the problem goes way beyond what a law or the enforcement of it could do. We cannot depend solely on the government to fix it, because
BULLYING STARTS IN THE HOME.
Somehow, somewhere along the line, bullies get the impression that the only way to be someone in life, the only way to shine brightly, is to cut down the competition or attempt to blow out the flame which outshines their own. To say people like that are jealous, pathetic losers with a twisted view of what it means to succeed in life would be the understatement of all time... and yet, it doesn't really help the situation.
What would, then, help the situation? Paying attention to our kids, and to what is going on in their lives.
Getting our own heads out of the clouds, or out of the bottle, or off the computer, or out of the casino or shopping mall, or away from the career, and truly listening to them.
Having the courage to stand up in defense of those who are mistreated, to address the issue, and to quit worrying about what the neighbors might think if we do.
Teaching empathy and compassion to our children, that human beings mean more than stuff or status.
Also, teaching our children self-respect, along with self-defense.
The problem is two-fold. On one hand, we have the winner-take-all crowd, for whom little more matters than how they are perceived by society, and who will do whatever it takes to be top dog. On the other hand, we have the pacifist, nothing-matters-but-feelings crowd, the be-nice-so-people-will-like-you club.
As parents, it is OUR responsibility to raise our children to be decent human beings. We need to instill confidence, promote self-esteem, encourage and applaud achievement. But bullying ENDS in the home as well...we need to trim our kids' wings if they become aggressive little monsters. Throwing up our hands and saying, "Well, that's just how she is, I don't know how to control her..." isn't good enough, nor is pleading ignorance. It's OUR job to raise that child to be an upright member of society, and no one else's. Not the daycare provider's, not Grandma's, not the government's, not the church's, not the school district's, not the penal system's... ours. You'll sure as hell brag and take credit if your kid wins a State Championship of some sort... are you willing to take that same credit should they end up in the penitentiary?
On the flip side of that... parents also need to arm their children against bullies. Expecting the school to take notice when there is a problem and do something about it is naive. Children need to be supervised, taught social skills and proper hygiene, provided with adequate clothing for their needs (no, not designer duds... I'm talking about clean clothes that actually fit them)... and they need to be taught how to defend and stand up for themselves. These things are not the responsibility of the school system or the government, but of the parents.
My husband and I have two girls, one in high school, one in elementary. We have often been amazed by how aggressive, demanding and yes, mean-spirited, other little girls can be. More than once I have found myself in the position of backing a daughter away from a so-called friendship, until she could better learn to stand up for herself. I've had to explain that being a friend doesn't mean caving to every demand, or going along with the crowd if it doesn't feel right... and that its okay to have your own interests and follow the beat of your own drummer. We teach our girls that its okay to tease a little, in fun... but its never okay to taunt or intentionally hurt the feelings of another. That requires discussing which subjects are acceptable to laugh about, and which are not. And yes, it is an investment of time. We seem to find that time during family meals, eaten together at the kitchen table with the television OFF.
Having said that, however... both of our girls are enrolled in martial arts. I've told them repeatedly that while its never okay to start a fight, it is okay to finish it. That if someone physically harms them, they must defend themselves without giving any thought whatsoever to the sort of trouble they might get into. It gets back to the worry, "What will the neighbors think". Frankly, I don't care what they think, as long as my daughter is alive, safe, and well.
Girls, especially, often have the "you've got to be nice to be liked" mantra drilled into their heads. Nice just for the sake of being nice, however, is dangerous territory. They begin to believe that because they are nice, nothing bad would or could or should ever happen to them. That's a lie from the pit if ever there was one. Even Jesus opened up a can of "not-so-nice" on the moneychangers in His Father's temple. He demonstrated that sometimes, its necessary to stand up against what is wrong, in order to defend what is right.
As parents, we also need to remember that bullying is not only confined to swirlies and locker room altercations. As we have all seen on the news, bullying is beginning to take on new and ever more vile forms... stalking, harassment via social media, secret recording of private moments which are then shared via the internet or cell phone, even the parents of kids who are in competition with each other are getting in on the game. Its disgusting, horrifying, and real.
We need to open our eyes and pay attention to our kids... to where they are, what they are doing and with whom, and to what they are saying.
We need to pay attention to what is going on in their lives, catch the problems early on and DO something about them, before they spin out of control.
We cannot sit back and wait for someone else to take care of the problem, or bury our heads in the sand in hopes it will go away on its own. It will not. I'm not advocating "helicopter parenting" here... we cannot dip our kids in sanitizer and cocoon them in bubble wrap before sending them off to school. They need to visit new places, try new things, experience life... its all a part of growing up... and we need to let them. But we also need to pay attention.
My heart is breaking tonight for a family in North Dakota who lost their beautiful daughter unnecessarily at the age of sixteen. I implore each and every parent out there to step up to the plate with me and shoulder some responsibility... to stop bullies in their tracks, to open our eyes to what is going on in the lives of our children, and do whatever it takes to prevent further tragedy.