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A Mother's Letter to Her Daughter on Bullying

Massachusetts says bullying is down, but 40 percent of middle school girls report being bullied.

A Mother's Letter to Her Daughter on Bullying

Dear Syd,

It’s 10:30 p.m., you’re finally asleep and we’re both exhausted, but I think you’re bully-proofed for tomorrow. 

I was worried about the stomachache you said lasted all day yesterday. So I spoke with the doctor and went over some ideas with you after school: drink plenty of water, keep a pain diary, a food diary. Walking home on a humid, cool, green afternoon, we chuckled about that. But another diary may be in order.

You were acting rather helpless at bedtime, preferring mom’s full turn-down service to a quick goodnight wish a couple of minutes later. I was trying to settle in for an evening of my own, non-parenting work, so I yelled, of course. Tears.  And then, the confession that your friends are picking on you.

Sydney, why didn’t you tell me this before?  Now I understand ­– the stomachache is coming from your heart.

This is how well-brought up, fifth-grade girls do it: They talk about your taste in clothes; are critical of the way you use the English language, even though you are just as correct as they are. Two or three friends will challenge you at the same time during play at recess. It doesn’t have to be any more threatening than that to be hurtful. 

Growing up is inevitably painful. These troubles are so common at your age. But life doesn’t have to include pain inflicted by people you care about and trust.  

When something similar happened a few months ago, it was all I could do to prevent your father from speaking to your friend’s parents. Our job, I reminded him, is to help you grow by teaching you how to help yourself – not come to your defense and fix things for you.

So, you learned to confront your friend about how much her words were making you feel bad, and used a lot of patience. I thought things were pretty much back to normal.

Tonight though, despite our sadder-but-wiser status, I felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants, trying to come up with ways to make you feel strong, not doubt yourself, and defend yourself, because I can’t always be by your side. I was lying in your bed and I told you what to say, again: “Please stop, you’re hurting my feelings.” 

Your family loves you, but we all need friends. And you should keep loving these friends for all their good qualities, but don’t let them hurt you.  We don’t expect you to be friends with everyone in your class. But you spend a lot of time together, and you need to get along. It’s not mean to have a different opinion than a friend has – voice that difference, but don’t be critical of her personally.

After you fell asleep, smiling about nicer things that happened during the day, I wanted to feel as if I did the right thing, and to prepare for any next step. I looked for some guidance on-line. Apparently, I shouldn’t have told you what to say, but asked you for your ideas first. (Next time.)

Dad found for me your school’s bullying prevention and intervention policy, which all schools in Massachusetts have been required to develop and implement for the past two years.  And while the governor’s office touted a survey just a week ago that says bullying is on the decline, that mostly refers to high school students.

In 2003, 23 percent of high school students in the health survey reported being bullied, which dropped to 18 percent in 2011. However, 37 percent of middle school students reported being bullied at school in the 2009 survey, while the 2011 figure stands steady at 36 percent. Separate those middle school girls from the boys, and the figures are stark: 32 percent of boys – vs. 40 percent of girls – said they’d been bullied in the past year.

I looked up a definition of bullying, too, just to know where we stand. In Massachusetts law:

“Bullying typically involves intense or continuous aggression which can be direct or indirect and which may be physical, verbal, gestural or non-verbal. The intent is always negative and malicious and there is frequently a power imbalance between the parties involved. The impact on targets can be substantial, resulting in negative long term emotional, physical and academic consequences.”

You are the first to say that you wouldn’t call your experience bullying. Regardless, if  40 percent of middle school girls feel as if they’ve been bullied, you unfortunately have a lot of company. I know you don’t want me to go to school to complain, for fear of retribution. But now I’m afraid the atmosphere has changed, and you’ve increasingly become a target. I will hold off for today. But you need to practice some self-defense. 

You emerged from that earlier episode more secure and content with its resolution, and tonight you even describe a détente with a boy who knows how to bug you. I’m so proud of you for that. Now you have a new project to work on. But remember this: Don’t pick on anyone yourself, and don’t be a bystander. Stand up for a friend who’s looking like a victim.  Do those things and live with a clear conscience.

I love you so very much,


(Sydney has read this letter.)

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