Q: Our son is 13 years old and in the seventh grade. Last week he came home from school complaining about how a few of his friends have been bullying him. These same boys were at his birthday party just the weekend before and they seemed to get along fine. Sometimes they poke fun at him when he is hanging around girls that these other boys have either “dated” or currently like. I think he pokes them right back, but they are three or four and he’s just one. Besides, we teach him to be kind, thoughtful, compassionate, and inclusive, so getting in a tit-for-tat really isn’t what we want him to do. I don’t know if we should let it work itself out or mention it to the other boys’ parents. My fear is that telling his friends’ parents will cause them to pick on him even more. On the other hand, I want it to stop. Any thoughts you can share would be most appreciated.
A: Having been a child who was picked on, made fun of and more, and relentlessly so (or so it seemed) from grades five through eight, I consider myself to be an expert in such matters.
The first thing I’ll point out is that children do not tend to do a good job of representing facts when they’re recounting events, especially when the events in question have elicited strong emotion. Getting picked on qualifies as an emotional event; therefore, I’d bet there’s more going on than is reflected in your son’s report. I’m not suggesting that he’s lying; I’m simply saying that emotions tend to interfere with recall.
Second, the definition of bullying has been “dumbed down,” and considerably so, since I was a truly bullied kid. When I was being run down and abused in various medieval ways, there was no doubt about it: I was being BULLIED. Several of my peers took turns chasing me home from school, for example. Like Forrest Gump, I learned to run fast, but if the “Bully of the Day” caught up with me, I was then subjected to various tortures, including being pinned to the ground and tickled until I nearly passed out from delirium. (By the way, in case the reader has never been tickled while immobilized, it’s funny for about a half-second, after which the experience is akin to being roasted alive.)
Name-calling was in a different category altogether. That was not regarded, by me or anyone else, as rising to the level of bullying. “Sticks and stones could break my bones, but words will never hurt me” was the stock response to being called a name. Looking back, it’s apparent to me now that my schoolmates and I were competing with one another for The Best Slur of the Day.
Today, name-calling — making a joke of someone’s last name, for example — is considered bullying. That’s part-and-parcel of the dumbing-down I referred to earlier. It’s no wonder that today’s kids seem to think that anything that causes them momentary discomfort is an aggression. This has had the effect of weakening the emotional resilience of a generation or more of children.
The fact is, name-calling is the sort of thing boys do to one another. (Girls do it too, but more covertly.) It causes some pain, yes, but it’s not life-threatening and left to their own devices, boys will usually work these things out.
You undoubtedly don’t have the full picture, your son is probably over-dramatizing what actually happened, kids’ relationships at this age are on-again, off-again, and you are absolutely correct that intervention on your part may well make matters worse. In that last regard, consider that today's parents tend toward being very defensive where their kids are concerned. For all those reasons, I’d definitely stay out of this.
Bottom line: Tell your son to figure it out for himself or find new friends. He needs to begin learning how to solve his own problems.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.