23 Aug 2014
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Do Kids Need to Learn How to Stand Up For Themselves?

News about the "epidemic of bullying" is everywhere these days. Some suggest that it is worse because we aren't teaching our kids to stand up for themselves.

Do Kids Need to Learn How to Stand Up For Themselves?

You‘ve probably heard the saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

As a young child, the adults in my life drilled this into me; it was offered as a way to cope with the teasing I endured at school.

To me, it was a load of bunk, then and now. Words have a lot of power to hurt—maybe even more so now in the era of texting over talking?

My parents’ and teachers’ good intention was to encourage me to be tougher; they told me I had to develop a “thicker skin.”

I’m still working on that one, frankly.

Flash forward a few decades, and I’m in the parent’s seat now. My son is getting ready to take his first steps onto the playground this fall, and I’m preparing him to handle schoolyard politics.

As I recently wrote about, a few weeks ago I attended a talk given by a longtime local educator about the conditions and challenges our kids are currently facing.

There was a lot to think about in that talk, but one point in particular she made on the subject of bullying has stuck with me.

She confirmed that the issue is one that occupies a lot of time and attention in school, more so now than in the past.  But, one observation she shared surprised me.

She said that she has observed that kids today “don’t know how to stand up for themselves.”

At the first sign of trouble, she says they are heading to an authority figure to resolve conflicts for them.

Having been through my own struggles as a kid, and factoring in my husband’s own history with bullies, I know that helping my son have the tools to handle the spectrum from innocuous teasing to serious bullying is important.

My bullies were mostly of the verbally taunting variety. In my husband's case, his bullies became brutally physical. While I was taught to turn the other cheek and "suck it up," my husband was taught to "never start a fight, but to be sure to finish it.”

Neither worked well for us. I ended up with years of issues from being a victim, and my husband landed in private school for a time, although the bullies did eventually leave him alone. So, I’m aiming for some sort of middle ground that allows my son to stand up for himself, as this educator said is needed, yet not land himself in serious trouble.

But exactly how to do that in today's environment, the guidelines for when and how to get help, or for when a parent should intervene feels unclear to me.  The resources I commonly turn to, and the experiences of my fellow parents aren't always agreeing.

Many parenting resources I checked out counsel some version of what I was told as a child—ignore, avoid, deflect, “act brave,” use your sense of humor, and finally, tell an adult.

However, some of my fellow parents say that incorrectly puts the responsibility on the victim.

They say it needs to be taken more seriously and directly addressed with the child with whom yours has conflict, either with the parent, or the school if necessary.

But what impact does that have on the child’s relationships? Is there a middle ground?

This week, I’d like to hear from parents and educators out there in the trenches. I'd like you to consider a few questions, and share what works and what doesn’t work when handling schoolyard relationships:

  1. Do our children need to be taught how to stand up for themselves better, and what specifically do they need to do? Is it different for boys and girls?
  2. Do you make a distinction between "harmless teasing" and more "serious bullying?" 
  3. When do you think a parent should intervene, and how? 

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