The street stretching in front of the president’s home, where I reside, on the campus of the University of the Ozarks serves as a bus stop for local school students. Pickup days gather a crowd of kids of various backgrounds and ages. The other morning, a police car was parked beside the school bus. A benign interloper, I watched as two unsmiling officers spoke to attentive, fear-frozen little faces inside the bus. When the talk ended, I asked the policemen what had happened.
“Several parents have reported incidents of bullying on this bus and at the elementary school,” responded one of the officers as the duo shook their heads in disapproval. “We were asked to speak to the students, to give them a lecture. I guess that’s our job.”
In light of the episode and some other ugly incidents on the national scene, I offer five recommendations about childhood bullying, which has become a serious problem. As a lifelong educator, I find acts of student against student intimidation to be particularly troubling.
1. Speak Out
Bullying is not acceptable. As adults, we need to impress on children that bullying and making fun of others should not be tolerated. It is wrong.
2. Teach Respect
Children crave role models— big people to emulate. Grown-ups do not merely set the standard, we are the standard. Our behavior is often mimicked by the kids we parent and teach. We are the ones responsible for showing children the importance of respecting others and emphasizing that respect is extended even to people we might somewhat dislike. We must teach respect by being respectful of everyone. If we are not, good lessons go unlearned.
3. Remember Civility
We are surrounded by hate language, as are our children. Hate language is ubiquitous at school, during athletic events, around the neighborhood, on talk radio and television shows, and in daily conversations. The malevolent message is that if you disagree with me, if you look different than I do, if you pray in a place of worship other than the one I pray in, or if you express an opposing political viewpoint, then I have the right to talk you down, no matter how vile my words may be. All the while, we forget that children are listening.
Change this by being mindful of the meaning of civility and practicing being civil. If we are caught off guard by someone’s oafish actions or when we begin to fume during our angriest moments, let’s respond civilly. I think civility is as contagious as contemptuousness.
4. Understand the Individual
Encourage children to make friends with people who are different than they are. Knowing someone on a personal level increases awareness while decreasing misperception. When I was 9 years old, I met my soon-to-be best friend, a boy with severe cerebral palsy who was on my paper route. Initially, I was afraid to befriend Bernie, and our first meeting was a disaster. But that evening my father offered advice that has stayed with me for a lifetime: Focus on making people comfortable with you rather than fixating on your discomfort with them.
5. Make a Difference
Can we stop all bullying? I am not that naïve nor can I think that big. I can, however, make a difference on the micro-level that is my own backyard. We all can. When I was a high school English teacher, I did not always agree with my principal or the inflexible district-wide policies. I certainly was not a rebel, but when I closed my classroom door and was alone with the students, I was in charge of that domain. That is where I made a difference.
We each exert influence in our domains, whether these include a classroom, the workplace, a place of worship, a circle of friends or our home. We can each impact our own backyards, yards that connect with others. We can each build a bully pulpit, stand atop it and speak out against the acts of bully pummeling. Do we expect someone else to stand up and do it for us?
We are the voices of respect and the keepers of tolerance. We are the teachers and the role models. If confronting bullying does not start with us, it will not end with children.