Henry was in the computer room, hunched over his laptop when I came home last night. His body language told me most of the story: slouched over, his eyes were downcast and his cheeks, puffy. His tone told me the rest.
"Hi dad," he said, his voice thick with recent tears. "I had a bad day today."
Bullying had reared its ugly head.
"I heard," I said. "What happened?" Then I winced at his frustrated, clipped account of the day that was punctuated by a very rare bit of profanity and, even more heartbreaking, additional tears.
Not to get too graphic or profane in the recounting of that, but he had another encounter with a kid at his middle school: some flung food and laughter at lunch and then a shouted insult implied when he was in the middle of a presentation and his teacher was out of the room. Maybe they were not big things, or dangerous things, but they had been building up for some time.
I had been expecting it, as I guess every parent should. Bullying is a sad part of growing up and middle school—which Henry started this year—is where some of those patterns start to develop. Even so, I still felt unprepared for the discussion. I wasn't in the best of moods myself, after my usually frustrating drive home, and I don't feel like I'm the best person in the world to tackle this subject to begin with. I'm sure other parents will identify with the white hot rage I feel when someone—no matter how old—threatens or picks on my kid. At the same time, the adult in me knows there's an appropriate measured response that will be more productive than simply saying: Well, throw it back.
It can be hard to distinguish between the kind of general joking around and teasing that all children engage in and bullying behavior. It's also hard to know the appropriate response. Henry knows how to defend himself, verbally. He's got a couple of uncles that keep him on his toes in that regard, and we usually engage in some playful back-and-forths ourselves.
It becomes a problem when it's consistent, habitual and mean-spirited. If you're looking for it, the symptoms are easy to see: a gradual loss of enthusiasm about school; slipping grades; being quiet and withdrawn. Henry hadn't shown those signs yet, thankfully, but he said something during our initial discussion that stood out like a beacon: "it had been building for some time."
The thing is, I know the kid in question. He's one of Henry's friends. When Henry went to sixth grade camp and I volunteered as a parent chaperone, this kid was the one Henry chose to bunk with us and be a part of our group. He didn't seem like a bully; he was friendly—funny even.
So what can you do?
Well, first of all, don't let it build up. When you're talking with your children about school, listen for things that might have upset them. Make a mental note. If you see patterns emerge, ask them about it.
Hear them out. Remember, 'silent' and 'listen' use the same letters. If you are shocked by the language they use when talking about it, keep that to yourself—at least at first. It's important for them to be honest and open about their feelings and the kind of language they use, however harsh, may be an indicator of how serious the issue is and how upset they are by it.
Talk about some different courses of action, but let them make the ultimate choice. And, as much as you might be tempted to say it or suggest it, telling them to 'hit them back' or 'you can come up with a better insult than that' isn't sound parenting.
In our case, we talked about if the child was trying to impress a new group of friends, if he was jealous that Henry was doing better in school, if there was a mutual friend—i.e., a girl—involved, or if he might've done something to set the other kid off, or if there might be something going on at his house that we didn't know about.
Henry didn't want to go to a counselor. I, recalling an episode of The Brady Bunch, stopped short at suggesting I go talk to the other boy's dad. We came up with a couple of different ways to approach the subject and decided a phone call would be best, but Henry came up with the solution on his own.
"We're good," he said, a little later, walking out of his room with a relieved smile on his face.
"Oh, you called him already? What happened?" I thought he was still thinking about it.
"I told him we had both a little hard on each other lately, and asked if he wanted to start over and go back to being friends," Henry said. "He said 'yes'."
Problem solved, for now. Perhaps that's a lesson we can all use: a little honest communication and admitting your own responsibility can go a long way toward resolving anything.