My Daughter, the Bully

7 years ago

When my daughter was in second grade, she spent most of her free periods lording over the playground. She decided what games were played and who played them. She decided who was “in” and who wasn’t. She decided if your Disney princess tee shirt was cool or so last year. On many days, she sent girls home crying to their mothers. The teachers told me she was a very self-determined little girl. The other parents told me she certainly knew her own mind. No one told me she was a bully.

At home, my daughter was helpful, funny, creative and, in many ways, a true delight. Sure she had her strong-headed moments, but we worked it out. When she bossed her brothers around, we talked about cooperation and teamwork and diplomacy and negotiation and compassion and empathy. When she insisted on doing things her way, we talked about the benefits of compromise and cooperative management. She had always been -- and still continues to be -- very clear of her own boundaries. She knows what she likes and what she doesn’t. We worked on helping her see that others might have a different opinion, and that those opinions are not right or wrong, just different. I had no idea that at school, she was mean, domineering and even cruel. 

It wasn’t until three years later, when I was working with the principal on our elementary school’s character education program, that I learned of my daughter’s behavior. Turns out, a group of mothers stormed into the principal’s office complaining that something must be done. When the principal suggested they speak directly with me, they demurred. “Oh, we don’t want to make waves.” “It would be awkward.” “We know her socially and don’t want to offend her.”

The principal was disappointed by their response. She and I knew each other well, because I had worked on the school’s site council and was active in the PTA. She assured them that I would be open to their input but they still demurred. She agreed to respect their wishes and not say anything to me. She worked with my daughter’s teachers to help my daughter see how her behavior was affecting others. By the start of third grade, my daughter was no longer the playground mean girl. She had been replaced by someone else.

All of this came to mind when I read a recent article in the New York Times about parents whose daughter was being cyber-bullied by a male classmate. When the principal asked if they had contacted the boy’s parents, they said it was too awkward because the fathers coached sports together. What? The fathers “coach” together? My understanding of the idea of coaching is to instruct, model and to advocate. If a child is behaving inappropriately, then the other parent should step up and let the offending child’s parent know. It is very likely the bully’s parent had no idea his child was behaving in this manner. Yet again, an opportunity was missed to collectively teach children the importance of healthy communication, boundaries and about community.

We read a lot about bullying these days. When the headlines are filled with yet another teen suicide as a result of bullying, it is no wonder that parents are struggling with how to advocate for their children. We are all scared and concerned. Helping our children to manage conflict begins at home when they are young. For all the Jerry-Springer/Glen Beck type ranting on TV these days, we are still a people who hate conflict.

I wish the women, who very rightfully were concerned about my daughter’s unacceptable behavior, had the courage to reach out to me. In their efforts to “not make waves,” these mothers missed a chance to teach my daughter and their daughters an important lesson. By operating passive-aggressively through the principal rather than directly with me, they reinforced a style of communication that undercuts individual responsibility and personal power -- a style that I believe has been at the heart of female oppression. They missed the chance to teach all of our daughters that conflict, while uncomfortable, can be handled with respect and dignity. Together, we might have taught our daughters lessons on self-advocacy and self-awareness that could have helped them in their adolescence when bullying takes on a whole new level of intensity with a much higher level of risk. Instead, their daughters learned to avoid conflict and to look to others to solve their problems, and my daughter didn’t learn anything. Margaret Mead once wrote “it takes a village.” I believe it does. Now we just have to start acting like we care about the village as much as we care about protecting ourselves.

There are many websites and articles dedicated to dealing with bullies.

  • An interview with Dr. Elizabeth Englander, founder and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center offers insight into how to help both the bully and the victim.
  • Blogger Alan has developed an incredibly comprehensive blog about bullying with an extensive list of resources.
  • BlogHer Gina Carroll writes that administrators face a delicate balancing act between the law and those involved.
  • Finally, BlogHer Jennifer Satterwhite has good advice for parents. Most importantly, she says that as for protecting our children, "It's our job."

Gloria Steinem once said, "The first problem for all of us, women and men, is not to learn but to unlearn." I am working on unlearning each and every day. How about you? Lisen


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