I found out my son was the thing I feared: the bully

I’d like to think I’ve done a good job raising kind, forward-thinking children. In fact, for a while I thought I had this parenting thing on lockdown.

Something changed about three years ago. It started with my son dedicating himself to an exercise plan that helped him shed the excess weight he’d been carrying throughout childhood. Within six months, a leaner young man emerged from his soft, fleshy cocoon, and with the loss of pounds came the loss of something else — his kindness toward others.

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I didn’t see it right away. Maybe the warning signs were there all along, and I refused to see them. Maybe it’s hard to accept that your child — the kid you’ve poured all your love and hope into — can turn into a complete asshole.

The day of reckoning came when a few kids were skateboarding near our driveway. I thought they were there to hang out with my son and told them he’d left for the gym and would be back in an hour or so. The kids gave one another uncomfortable glances, before one, a boy I knew well, told me my son didn’t like them anymore.

“What do you mean he doesn’t like you?” I asked.

“It’s just that, he’s different,” the boy answered. “He isn’t that nice anymore.” 

Another child, one I knew who had a habit of saying exactly what was on his mind, spoke up. “I’ll just say it. Excuse my language, but he’s been a real dick.” 

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I spent a few more moments listening to them detail the rude remarks my son would make about them and practically every other student in their class. He used words that were all too familiar, slurs he himself had been called before he’d lost weight. It pained me to hear them, but somehow I knew it was true.

I’d watched over the past few months as my son grew increasingly agitated and unkind to his older brother — mocking him about his food choices, criticizing him for not exercising more. I intervened but just chalked the attitude up to normal brotherly interactions and teenage hormones.

The warning signs were all there, but I couldn’t believe that my son, who had felt the shame and hurt caused by others who teased him, would go through all the hard work to change his physical appearance and then become a bully to those who hadn’t.

Later that evening, I pulled my son aside and talked to him about what the kids told me.

“What? They need to lose weight. People said it to me and now look — I’ve lost weight,” he said.

I spent an hour gesticulating wildly as I tried repeatedly to impress upon my son how completely NOT OK his behavior was. He semi-listened, and when I caught him rolling his eyes, I sent his ass to his room for the night.

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Like my son, I, too, had been bullied, and for a short while I found empowerment through bullying others. It wasn’t something I was proud of but a truth nonetheless. After years of being shoved, made fun of and threatened, I found courage in fighting back — and eventually fighting first so that no one could hurt me. I suspected my son was dealing with the same illogical thinking.

Later that night, I asked if I could speak to him again, this time more calmly. I shared with him how I had been teased about my looks, intimidated by kids who wanted to prove themselves to others. I told him how that manifested itself later as a determination to never let anyone hurt me and how I’d done many cruel, stupid things to people who didn’t deserve it because I thought I was protecting myself.

He listened and didn’t say a word.

“I think you’re criticizing others and being unkind because people were very unkind to you. I think part of the issue is you still haven’t learned to love yourself or accept your body, and therefore you have a hard time accepting others. Ultimately, son, I think you’re going about this whole respect thing the wrong way,” I said.

I’d like to tell you that the one talk changed my son for good, but it’s not true. Sure, he was a lot nicer to others following our discussion, but even years later, I still have to occasionally remind him to be tolerant and kind. He is a work in progress, like I am, and hopefully by the time he reaches adulthood, I’ll have chipped away that bully facade.

But he has learned an important lesson in humility, especially when I’ve made him apologize to the people he’s hurt. Nothing shuts a mean mouth up quicker than a slice of humble pie.

As parents, it’s easy to overlook our children’s bad qualities or to not believe that when they are out of earshot, they could be cruel or unkind to other children. We can do a better job of paying attention to their flaws and working with them to deal with their own insecurities without having to stomp all over others in the process. That’s why we’re here.