How to beat the bullies

I have advised many a mother in my day not to fight her kids’ battles, not to give in to the terrorist-like tactics of so-called “bullies” and make their antics a big deal. That, of course, was before my own son came off the playground recently in tears and my theory turned to harsh reality: I wanted to go after the mean kid myself and kick his cute little butt.

Of course, the actual episode was probably not as dramatic as my elder son’s tears suggested — childhood arguments, like all arguments, rarely are. I would say my boys have been blissfully lucky in that they have not really encountered meanness, so even the slightest bit of it is enough to have them slightly shell-shocked.

“Why didn’t you just say something back, something rude and jokey like you do with your brother? Not take it so seriously?” I said, trying to take my own advice and help Eli brush off the slight.

He wiped at his eyes. “I thought of things, but I don’t know. … I couldn’t say them.”

Something caught in his throat and he began to lose it again at the memory of feeling powerless.

I should have been glad that my son didn’t want to fight mean, but the episode left me flabbergasted. A minor insult like this — the “bully” dissed Eli’s skills at sports — didn’t seem to warrant the torrent of upset.

But of course, it’s not about the insult itself, but about the flood of emotions that the insult triggers. In Oscar’s case, suddenly an inner voice was telling him that the bully might actually be right. The seed of doubt had been planted — and nothing your adoring mother tells you can stop its growth.

I guess that’s why I didn’t take my typical “get up and brush yourself off” approach, the same you-can-do-it-yourself theorem I apply to homework. I suppose it occurred to me that the idea of boys being mean to one another was going to creep up again, probably, and I needed to weigh in, if not forcibly against the perpetrator, at least with a few faux-wise words.

I started with the classic maxim that people saying mean things always has more to do with the bully than the person whom they’re bullying. When that didn’t work, I ended with how I was going to threaten the child that I would tell his parents if ever was mean to Eli again.

Luckily, I came to my senses and didn’t make a mountain of what had clearly been a molehill. These little incidents tend to blow over if we let them. Yes, it hurt when Jimmy Franz told me I sucked at dodgeball. And it was traumatic when Coach Jackman made sure I got picked last for kickball, but our role as parents is to guide our children through the tough times — not use them to revisit our own traumas.

Yes, kids suffer small and huge humiliations at the hands of other kids. And, tears are indeed shed because of the fast-talking bully catches his dube unaware. But we do our kids no favor fighting their battles. Now, certainly, there are exceptions to that, such as when the torture takes on serious proportions. But garden-variety back-and-forths, the “teases” my husband can still recall from his younger days have to be suffered without my heading out to the playground on a mission, without my saying a word except, “Sorry…” to my son with sad, sympathetic eyes. I might add a “that sucks,” if I wasn’t trying so, so hard to get Eli to stop saying “sucks.”

We practice at the dinner table now, saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” and trying to believe it. As a writer who has had mean words hurled at her before on a few occasions, I can share that experience with my children. I tell them not to worry about what other people say — and that every time I stand tall, and continue to write, I am getting stronger for the next time. It is all a small matter of believing in oneself, and the best thing I can do for my kids is to show them that I can actually do that.

And sometimes, I really do.