My eldest child, Ethan, was attending a primary school that just started. I love the idea of literally growing with the school. The school uniform has not even been designed and my son has been wearing his PE attire since his enrolment. Similarly, the school song was co-written with the parents’ input over one year. Ethan is now in Primary Two and we are on a beautiful journey of growing together with the school. It is with this spirit of growing and partnering that I am writing on a potentially sensitive topic – bullying. Ethan has the unfortunate experience of being bullied three times this year, each with varying severity. Let me share each incident in detail and what my wife and I did to address them.
The first incident happened in a toilet. Ethan goes to the after school care and therefore gets to mix with children from other classes. There is this boy from another class that is known to be a bully. He will pick on those who are smaller in size compared to him and intimidate them to do his bidding. One day, Ethan was brought to the toilet by this bully. The bully pushed and shoved him and nearly resorting to punching him. My son is quite small in size and is also someone who is very sensitive to people’s needs. The bully wanted Ethan to let him copy his homework. My son duly complied but was terrified. After getting what he needed, the bully left Ethan in the toilet and went on his way.
Ethan confided in me that evening and I got very concerned. He was physically assaulted and I was worried that he will be hurt in the future. I discussed with my wife and we decided to inform Ethan’s Form Teacher calmly so as to address this incident in a holistic manner. I did not want to “complain” because it was really not the school’s fault and it will not solve the problem at all. Besides, we concluded that this is a good chance to teach Ethan how to deal with bullies. With the help from the Form Teacher, who tracked down the bully and gave him a stern warning, we began to teach Ethan how to escape when he is trapped in the toilet again. I actually pretended to be the bully and got Ethan to firmly push me aside and run out to alert the teachers. I can see that he grew more confident and will be able to better deal with the bully if it happens again. Fortunately, it has not.
The second incident took place during PE. Ethan was playing soccer and while chasing after a ball, a group of three bullies intentionally stuck out their legs to trip him. He nearly fell on his face and was really traumatised. The teacher did not witness the incident and Ethan was also too afraid to tell him. But he did confide in me again that night and broke down, crying. It pained my heart to know that he was bullied again. However, I took a different approach this time. I decided to teach him how to stand up to the bullies and not alert his teachers. I think that if I removed the “threat” of the bullies, he will never be able to really stand up to them. He will need to learn it in the real way.
To my relief, it worked! I role-played as the bully again and taught him how to tell me off, in a stern way, to stop the bullying. If not, he would inform the teacher. I also taught him to tell the bully that he is not afraid of him. We rehearsed it a few times until I think he is confident. They really did try to trip Ethan again the next week and he was able to bravely stand up to them as I taught him. I was worried that the burden of dealing with the bullies on his own was too heavy for him, but I took a calculated risk and it paid off.
The last incident happened during recess time. Ethan had prepared a personal note for his principal and rolled it up like a scroll, complete with a beautiful ribbon. He had intended to give the scroll to his principal during recess but he was out of office. After eating, he placed the scroll on the table and went to play with his friends in the school field. A group of three boys came along, picked up the scroll, peeled off the ribbon and read the note. Ethan saw and ran towards them. They started to laugh at him and called him “that famous cookie”. Ethan was really hurt by that comment. His friend came along and told him to ignore them. The bullies then ran off with the scroll, leaving Ethan behind.
Ethan related the incident to me at night and sobbed bitterly. I could see that this time it affected him badly. He had put in a lot of effort to prepare the scroll for his principal. He also disliked being called names. I was furious and really wanted to go to school the next day to confront the boys and their parents. I was very upset. I wanted to blow up.
However, I did not blow up. In fact, I had a crazy idea. Besides teaching my son how to deal with bullies, can I take it a step further to help him turn bullies into friends? Some of you who are reading this now may think that I am toying with the welfare of my child. Actually, I am doing the exact opposite. I realised that if I go to the school and blow up, it will not achieve my ultimate aim – for Ethan to stand up for himself. My anger and desire for justice can take over but my son will always need me to step in. But I also didn’t want Ethan to feel that we don’t care for him so we will have to inform the school in some way. Again, I knew collaborating with the Form Teacher was the best way. I calmly called her again and related the incident to her. She tracked down the three boys on that same day and got them to apologise to Ethan. But the scroll could not be recovered.
In the midst of all these, I told the teacher about my crazy idea. She understood what I meant and told me she will partner me on this. To cut the long story short, we worked together to share with Ethan that it may be possible to make friends with these “bullies” since they had apologised and were remorseful. He warmed up to the idea and one thing led to another, they are actually friends now! The boys actually look out for Ethan during recess. Amazing right?
What is my point? It is that if we always step in to “help” our children, they will never be able to learn from their setbacks, even in this case of bullying. As parents, we have to put aside our feelings sometimes and ask ourselves who do we really want our children to become? Yes, we do have to step in sometimes so that they will feel that we are walking together with them in this journey, especially for younger children. However, if we intervene with anger, seek justice all the time or worse still, blame the school, do our children gain from this intervention? In all the bullying incidents that Ethan went through, my wife and I were very deliberate and intentional about our goal, that is our son has to learn how to stand up to bullies. Our feelings of vengeance and justice should not stand in the way. We chose to partner the school. In fact, we even achieved the improbable – to turn bullies into his friends. In that process, Ethan learned the precious lesson of forgiveness. We chose not to be a bully in order to teach our son how to deal with a bully. I really think this is the better way… 🙂
(This blog post first appeared on I Love Children’s website on 6th May 2015 here.)