December 30, 2014

Choosing our words and also our reactions

Everyone has heard the cautionary tale about the little boy who cried wolf, or what happens if you yell FIRE! in a public place when there isn't one. At some point, we become desensitized to the language and when a real emergency happens, nobody reacts.

Elementary schools always have some sort of anti-bullying policy and children are taught to never-ever bully, but they don't always seem to be taught what exactly constitutes bullying. I see this phenomenon as a substitute teacher in the district where I work. Nearly every day, one child makes an unkind or unfiltered remark to another, something perhaps as innocuous as your hair looks weird today or I don't like the color of your sweater. Within moments, I have a child telling me they've been "bullied". I'm put in a position of mediation, but in a culture that is so hyper-vigilant, every utterance must be monitored. In fact, if I don't react properly, I could be responsible for not addressing the situation.

I'd like to teach our children instead to be ducks and let it roll off their backs. When did the teasing that is inherently part of children being children become a rallying cry for preventative measures in every exchange? In no way do I wish to diminish the very real and serious problem of bullying, especially with the lengths true bullying can go in today's cyber world. However, I believe that the culture reduces the problem to the level that when real bullying happens, it's often ignored, in a slew of ongoing offenses we commit against one another.

When I was in high school, our drama club did a very funny play called The Stuck Pot. Here is a synopsis from Dramatic Publishing:
Some boy is always getting stuck with an awful "lemon" for his date at the annual dance. The boys have decided to establish a consolation prize to be awarded to the boy who gets stuck. They call it The Stuck Pot. The girls retaliate by establishing a stuck pot of their own. So much money is collected for the two stuck pots that everyone (almost!) wants to win. Alice is particularly anxious to win. She's not much interested in boys and she'd like that "pot" in order to buy a microscope. Alice is a whiz at chemistry and she cooks up a unique new "perfume," the smell of which should send any boy running for the hills. Meanwhile, some of the other girls are vying to be the most unattractive, and it results in probably the most riotously funny dance scene your audience will ever see. The dance reaches a humorous climax and a delightful resolution. 

I remember laughing hysterically at this play 30 years ago. The same play this year was rejected by the administration as having too many undercurrents of "bullying".  When the reason was explained to me, I absolutely understood, but I couldn't help but wonder why nobody ever considered it a generation ago?

funny looking shoes
I've addressed my own issues with bullying as both the giver and the receiver, and have seen glimpses of it while raising my own children. However, we don't teach elementary school children that sometimes people just aren't always nice to each other, and that isn't the same thing as terrorizing, harassing, or bullying. It's about learning social skills to diffuse a situation instead of escalate it.

When I was about 10 years old, I had a pair of boots that my mom picked out for me. They were very stylish in her eyes, but they weren't at all like anything my classmates wore. I didn't want to wear them to school, because I knew what would happen. But of course, Mom made me wear them to school and sure enough, I got there and everyone made fun of my boots. They were strange looking for the style of the day. I recoiled, embarrassed that I had to spend the day in boots that I knew people would tease me about. I got home, barely able to conceal my anger, and refused to ever wear the boots again. I look at the boots today and think they are pretty cool. But to a 5th grader in the mid 70s, it just didn't work with the styles my peers were wearing.

What happened with the boot incident was not bullying but a series of life lessons. I learned that sometimes people tease you for something you cannot control. You either learn the confidence to manage it or you let it hurt you. Or you find a reason to stop being teased. In my case, I knew my boots were funny looking in elementary school eyes. I gained the confidence to stand up to my mom and grow into a more independent person. I didn't hate my classmates or internalize the teasing. They were making fun of the boots, not me.  But I wonder how such an incident would be repeated today. Would a little girl wearing the funny looking boots think she was bullied? How can we check that reaction and instill the coping skills to manage some uncomfortable moments?

I think that's what it really boils down to. We need to learn to manage moments of discomfort. Those moments we're either embarrassed or ashamed, and how we handle it. It's about how we're reacting to what someone is saying.

Being thoughtful isn't a one way street. It's not just about what we say, but also what we hear and how we react. A little more thoughtfulness would go a long way.





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