Friday, 1 March 2013


or Why I'm Writing "Kick Me!" On Eleanor's Back

We decided to home educate for a lot of reasons, but bullying wasn't one of them.
It's true that keeping our daughters out of school may help us to avoid it to an extent, certainly severe, persistent bullying is much less likely outside of school*, however any gathering of children*** offers the potential for bullying.
 So, naturally, I want to equip our children to handle bullies.

The first thing I want them to know is that The Law of the Schoolyard**** appears in no book of legislation anywhere whatsoever.
 All too often children hide the fact that they're being bullied.
Sometimes, perhaps, it's because they don't think their woes will be taken seriously, but frequently it's because of some fear of being a tattle-tale, some idea that to seek help, or to be unable to deal with bullies oneself, is shameful or dishonourable.
 This is of course rot: it's a parent's, or a teacher's, job to look after the children in their care, if a child can't stop the bullies bullying them, then it's down to the adults to step in.
 Of course in order to step in we first need to know there's something to step into and, as we are somewhat less omniscient than our kids tend to believe, we generally need them to tell us about it.
Which is where we come up against the Law of the Schoolyard, a law enforced, and reinforced, by the very people it benefits most: the bullies.
 Why don't children speak up?
Sometimes it's because they simply don't think of it*****, but often it's because they're ashamed of needing help, or afraid that they'll be laughed at, or even bullied, if they tell us.
 So it's very important that we let them know that we want them to tell us, that they are supposed to tell us, that no-one will look down on them for telling us, and, perhaps most importantly of all, that telling us can't make things worse if they're already being bullied.
 Unfortunately, the only way to do this is to talk about it, and to make absolutely sure that when they do tell us their problems, we listen properly and do our best to put a stop to the bullying.

 Which brings me to the whole not-being-taken-seriously thing.
It's easy to tell a child to "Just ignore it", it's surprisingly hard to actually ignore a bully.
Likewise it's very easy to imagine that because something seems trivial to us, it can't be that important to anybody else.
 The fact is, though, that if a child is unhappy, for whatever reason, then the adults around them need to take their unhappiness seriously.
Ok, sometimes "taking their unhappiness seriously" can mean explaining, seriously, that there really isn't a monster under the bed and that, seriously, they can't wear the pink pyjamas again because they're in the laundry basket seriously covered with something that looks like glue. Seriously.
 But we manage that sort of thing with a reasonably straight face, so I think we can cope with being told that our child's life is ruined because they wore a green jumper today and Mildred Prenderghast said that green jumpers are made from bogies.
It sounds silly, but when one thinks about it for a second it's pretty hurtful: the green jumper was probably that child's own choice, maybe something they cared about, or were proud of.
Perhaps they thought they looked nice in their green jumper, only to be told that it, and therefore they, were actually a loathsome pile of snot.
People may well have laughed, it's certainly pretty unlikely that anyone stood up for them.
 Silly things can hurt.
As Margaret Atwood wrote: "Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life size".

By laughing off, or telling our children to ignore, their miseries, we tell them that they don't matter to us, or,  even worse in its way, that we are powerless to help them.
 I'd rather do my best to help.

The second thing I want them to know, is that bullies are not as powerful, or as ubiquitous as they seem.

Bullies are, by and large, rather pathetic individuals.
 They want to stand out, or to look stronger than others, or to prevent anybody from picking on them, and the easiest way they can do this is by picking on somebody else first.

 Television programmes and films such as Mean Girls, rather promote the idea that bullies are powerful, popular people, well-dressed and well groomed, whose merest word can make less stylish, less socially accepted individuals shrivel on the spot.
  I'm fairly sure my own school bullies had seen a few programs like this, it would certainly explain the way they walked about as though they owned the place.
In reality, though, they were just a rather small clique of particularly unpleasant, not very bright, distinctly foul-mouthed girls, who wore clothes and make-up that were far too old for them********.
Seriously, they looked like warthogs.
Sounded like them too.
 But while I was aware that their apparent self-images didn't quite match the reality of their appearances, it didn't sink in somehow that while they seemed powerful and confident, that confidence and power was as imaginary as the glamour they thought they exuded.
 It would have helped to know that those girls were barely scraping by at the work I found so easy, that they, in turn, had things to fear, that their confidence probably came out of their make-up bags and not, as it seemed to, out of any genuine sense of self-worth.
 It would have helped me, so it's something I will take care to talk about as my daughters grow up.
Knowing that a bully is afraid won't stop them from bullying, but it can blunt the sting of their words a little.

Of course it's hard to believe that the bullies aren't all-powerful when it feels like everyone is a bully.

Which brings me to the third thing, and to why I'm (metaphorically) writing "Kick Me!" on my daughter's backs.

 When you're a child, and you're being bullied, it can seem that bullies are everywhere: someone says something mean and everyone laughs, everyone is on the bullies' side, not yours.
 The fact is that most of those children probably don't even know why they're laughing: they just laugh because everyone else is laughing.
Of those that do, the majority probably don't actually want to hurt anyone, or don't care either way********, they just don't want to be bullied themselves, so they join in, rather than draw the bullies attention.
 Of course, while not everyone, and perhaps not anyone, really thinks your jumper looks like a pile of bogies, it can still feel like they're all on the side of the bullies.

So, the third thing: always stand up to bullies.

Yes, I know, the first thing was that it's ok to ask for help.
It is, it really, really, is.
Children should never be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help, and I absolutely want my daughters to let me know that they're being bullied.

But the first thing they should do is stand up to the bully.
Not because all bullies are cowards and the bully will magically back down in face of their defiance.
That's rather improbable, not least because bullies are, by and large, cowards, and backing down would leave them open to further defiance, or even attacks.
 But it's still worth doing.

Firstly because not all bullying words are meant to be: sometimes the apparent bully will stop doing or saying hurtful things, if only someone points it out.
It can happen.
 Secondly, it's important not to back down, so that the bully knows that they are not all-powerful, that they aren't as scary or as cutting as they think, and that bullying isn't actually an easy route to social success after all.
It may not look as though you have any effect at all: they may laugh all the harder at your failure to bend, but it will show on the inside, they will lose a little belief in the power of their bullying.
It feels better to stand up to them anyway.

 And thirdly, it's important to stand up to bullies because you won't always be the one being bullied.

Remember what I said about it feeling like everyone is a bully?
It only takes one dissenting voice to change that.
 Just one person saying that, actually, that's a really nice jumper, and it doesn't look like bogies but like new leaves, can turn the tide of opinion away from the bully.
 Ok, often it won't, quite often it will be one quiet voice amidst a multitude of laughing voices.
More often than not it will be one voice surrounded by staring, silent children, who might agree, but certainly aren't going to say so.
Most of the time the bully will just repeat what was just said in a special bullying voice******** and move on to criticising the speaker but that doesn't matter.
It doesn't matter because now everyone knows the bully is not the only arbiter of taste-in-jumpers.
It doesn't matter because, hey, that bully sounds like an idiot doing that stupid voice.
Most of all, it doesn't matter compared to the fact that someone now knows that all the world is not against them, and that world is bearable again because of this and you did that.

If it doesn't work, come and tell me.
I'll do my best to fix it.
I promise.

That's what I'm trying to teach Eleanor, and what I will try to teach Phoebe.

It doesn't just go for child-sized bullies either: one of my proudest (if simultaneously embarrassing) moments as a mother was of seeing another parent smacking her daughter, over some silly dispute about sweets, and Eleanor instantly leaping up and saying "That's not very nice: We don't hit!"
I don't know how much of an impression it made, but I was proud of her, all the same.

Long may it continue.

*Almost Certainly Unnecessary** Disclaimer: I might home educate but I have nothing against schools, I also understand that they are supposed to much better at dealing with bullying than they are when I was a child.
 I am simply aware that large groups of children, meeting in a reasonably confined space, for most of the day, five days a week, offer much more scope for ongoing bullying than do smaller, more varied groups.

**Because everyone who reads this is far too sensible, of course.

***Or adults, alas.

****Well, that's what Homer Simpson calls it.
Seriously, I have nothing against school, I just prefer home ed.

*****I've encountered this myself: after an apparently happy week at her Musical Theatre Summer School, Eleanor informed me that she liked everything about it "except those girls calling me a baby".
Yes, she did tell them to stop, but they "just wouldn't".
She wasn't afraid to tell me, or her teachers, it simply didn't occur to her to do so.
 Hopefully she will know better in future.

******Possibly a side-effect of the tendency for men and women as old as thirty to be cast as teenagers, so that clothes and make-up selected to glamourous on them on-screen, look simply awful on boys and girls of their supposed ages.

*******Children can be terribly self-centred.

********You know the one: it either sounds like a demented Mr Punch or like one of those Tex Avery cartoon characters that go around mumbling "Duhhh, George..." all the time, and are actually inspired by Of Mice and Men, of all things, that voice, the one that sounds like nobody real but that all bullies seem to produce when their imagined authority is threatened.

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