“Mom, is it okay to skip school sometimes? Maybe today?” My first-grader looks at me, not touching the jacket he is supposed to put on. Oh, Friday, I think to myself. “No, sweetie, today is school and work, but remember what day it is?” The prospect of TV and tacos and all the rest of Friday evening ‘family chill’ usually helps a bit. “But I don’t want to go to school, I don’t like this school!” Tears flooding his eyes as he angrily wipes them away. Ok, not routine Friday talk. Time to let go of the computer and listen.
“What is it you don’t like at school?” He grimaces, waits a second to check I’m still there, listening. “They call me smug”. “Who does?!”, I roar, before I remember what I read on a parenting site about keeping calm when your child tries to tell you something potentially tricky or upsetting. “Is it anyone special who says so?”, I try again, in a calmer voice now. No answer. I also allow for the possibility that he is a bit cocky and ask him. “I don’t think so, they just say I am smug all the time!”
Why children are loyal to their bullies beats me. Or maybe it doesn’t: bullying causes shame and guilt, making the victim think it’s their fault. But I think I know exactly who it is so I ask my son and he says it’s him, but I am not to say anything to the teacher. Another typical thing of bullying, don’t look, don’t tell! Well, watch me, I know this shit!
I was regularly beaten up by a boy on my way home from school for no reason when I was about 11. I didn’t even know him, he lived a street away, but he waited for me at the bus stop and beat me every day. It never occurred to me to tell someone. One day, when the boy who was in love with me (I found that out later, it was inconceivable for me at that time that someone would be in love with me) asked to accompany me home. I know, it’s old-fashioned, but I am 40 after all!
Anyway, the bully stood there waiting, we got off the bus and bang, he started his routine beating of me. He was mighty surprised to find a furious 11-year-old boy beating his guts out! It never happened again.
The participants of bullying have been studied and yield insight to why bullying can keep on going for such devastatingly long periods of time. There is of course the Victim and the Bully. Then there are the Reinforcers of the bully, the Assistant of the bully, the Defender of the victim, and finally the Outsiders. The latter are more often girls, whereas the former are more often boys. Both bullies and victims more often have ADHD-type problems.
Modern anti-bullying interventions appreciate the pivotal role of the Outsiders because they are the largest group in terms of numbers. They are the ones who can take action against bullying informally, in their spontaneous everyday interactions. If they are helped to realise their role and get coaching, that is.
Of course I realise I might be overreacting when I think this is bullying. I hope that it is the course of all children entering a new class, and not immediately making their way down the hierarchy. If they instead challenge the current leader by being smart, social, and outspoken, rivalry will occur.
So I tell my son the story of the young gorilla who was the leader of the pack and everyone’s favourite. Until another young gorilla came along! And now the girls didn’t think the first gorilla was the most beautiful and charming anymore, and the guys wanted to play with the new gorilla as well. The new gorilla even beat the first gorilla in the mango-pealing race. That’s when the first gorilla got really angry!
I demonstrate the story by making sounds and start theatre-punching him, putting on my angry gorilla-face, my son laughing through his tears. I can see he gets it, but not only that – he appreciates me trying so hard. Yet there is this look of ancient knowing in his face that brings me to a halt. It’s like saying “Thanks for the effort, mom, but this shit is not going away just like that”.
At school it breaks my heart to say I am not coming in with him to class. But I pull the teacher aside. I am not going to be a passive Outsider or desperate Defender of the Victim. I want the school to work this out, using the peer group. Now. Otherwise, there are no guarantees for what Mama Gorilla might do!