Sadly, bullying is one of the hottest issues in the cultural sphere right now, whether it’s cyberbullying, bullying of gay and lesbian teens, or the increasing amount of mean girls in early elementary school. Reading about hundreds of children who are feeling isolated, remembering our own moments of teasing or being teased, watching children we love struggle to find their place in the world: it’s heartbreaking, and of course we want answers, solutions, attention.
But I hope we also turn the conversation to prevention and alternatives; how can we raise more children who won’t tease or bully or torment? How can we raise kinder children? How do we move beyond teaching toddlers to say “please” and “thank you,” and that our hands are not for hitting? Like many parenting issues, it only gets more complicated as our children grow older and move into worlds where we cannot protect them. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words have such power to hurt.
I like to think I model kindness for my own children, and for those I teach, by using manners, apologizing when I think I’ve been hurtful or wrong, valuing the acts of kindness I see them performing and calling out acts I think are unkind. At a recent Brownie meeting, one little girl said, “I’m saving the spot next to me on the rug for cool kids only,” and I instantly leapt in with, “At our Brownie meetings, we’re all cool kids.” But how many instances do I not see, and how many opportunities for kindness do I miss? How do we teach kindness and self-reliance and self-protection at once, so we don’t propagate a garden full of giving trees (my least favorite children’s book)?
My friend Martha wrote a lovely blog post recently about teaching kindness, prompted by some experiences her own Lucy is going through these days. Children can be so cruel, and this is a fact of human development we will not, and perhaps should not, be able to disrupt. But when the cruelty is echoed in the adults, or not identified, or allowed to continue, we become part of the problem. I’ve blogged before about finding our values and centering our lives around them, and the different ways we try to communicate those values to our children. It’s an ongoing quest for me, trying to keep those values in mind and transmit them concretely and consistently with my kids. But I have almost no control over the adults and families my kids will interact with, and what their values might be, and whether theirs will align with ours.
So this weekend, we went shopping for the Halloween party we are having next weekend for a small group of my girls’ friends. In the party favors aisle, we found a bag of 75 pumpkin-shaped erasers and 100 spider rings, and we bought them. This year, my girls will be giving out one of each to every kid in their class, from their best friends to the kid who teases everyone and seems to have no friends. While I don’t expect them to make friends with every kid, or try to hang onto friends who aren’t acting like friends, I do want them to be kind and compassionate, and I do expect us all to take small steps toward empathy, wherever the road takes us.