Of all the reports parents can hear from their child about how things are going at school, few will raise their ire and outrage more than finding out their child is being bullied. And any parent who’s been in that situation struggles with how to advise their son or daughter to respond. Do you give the age-old wisdom that “if you stand up to bullies, they’ll always back down”? Or is that ill-advised in today’s climate? Maybe you should just suggest they go tell a teacher next time and risk them being branded a tattletale.
Fortunately, after a decade of effort, many schools have significantly reduced the most overt and offensive bullying behavior. In many places, the days are gone of the schoolyard thug extorting milk money, homework papers, or test answers. What’s still prevalent, though, and probably always will be, are unkind words — the taunts, teases, name calling, etc. That kind of harassment is just harder to identify and police. So how should a child to respond to that kind of mistreatment?
The best response, of course, depends on a number of factors. But what follows are three successful strategies used by elementary school boys. Let’s see if we can find some wisdom in them. We’ll actually start with me.
Bully #1: John
Despite being a talkative know-it-all with a sarcastic sense of humor, I somehow made it all the way to the fifth grade without having what I would consider a real enemy. But that’s where my luck ran out. I had somehow become the target of ridicule of the class clown. I’ll just call him John. For weeks, he made me the butt of his jokes, teased me, and called me names. And since the other kids admired his sharp tongue, many of them soon joined in. My life had become a fifth-grade version of a living hell.
Well, one night I went to my dad for advice. For some reason I chose the one night a week when his drinking buddies were at our house. Ironically, that turned out to be a far better choice than you might think.
The men listened to my dad give me the mature and reasonable advice to have a respectful talk with John, telling him how his comments made me feel, and asking him to please stop. After patiently suffering this apparent affront to masculinity, my father’s best friend at the time, Jerry, interjected with this advice: He said, “Bullshit! This is what you need to do. You get to school tomorrow morning extra early. You wait outside the school in the parking lot and wait for this ‘John’ to get dropped off. Once he’s away from his mom and not yet buddied up with his friends, you walk right up to him, get in his face, and you say this:
John, you and I are either going to be friends, or we’re going to be enemies. And you need to decide which it’s going to be, right now.
“Then what do I do?” I asked.
“Nothing.” he said. “That’s all you have to do.”
“But what if he says he wants to be enemies? Or what if he wants to know what I’m going to do about it?”
“He won’t,” Jerry assured me. “But if he does, all you have to say is, ‘I just need to know where we stand, John. Are we friends? Or are we enemies?’ Then no matter what his answer is, say ‘Okay’ and walk away.”
It sounded too easy. But all the men, including my father, seemed to think it was a good solution. So the next morning, that’s exactly what I did. I waited to get John alone in the parking lot and executed my lines with the precision and seriousness of a military officer. John’s reaction was priceless. It surprised me as much as my parking lot ambush probably surprised him. Despite his being a few inches taller and several pounds heavier, he took a step backwards. His eyes got really wide. And he stammered out a set of words less meaningful than the tone of voice he used to stammer them. Each of his two or three disjointed sentences contained the word “friends.” But his tone was a combination of shock, fear, and shame. Our business concluded, we walked into the school together.
John never spoke an ill word of me again.
That was 37 years ago. I have two boys of my own now, I’ve tried to identify what it was about this response to a bully that made it work. But it wasn’t until I came across two other successful examples that I saw it. Listen to the following stories of a boy named Carson and see if you can spot the similarities.
Bully #2: Jim
When Carson was in the fourth grade he found himself playing a game of tag with some other boys at lunch each day. But after a few days, one of the boys, we’ll call him Jim, came up to Carson at the beginning of recess and told him he wasn’t allowed to play anymore. Apparently, Jim explained, some other boy had been sick and absent from school for a few days, and Carson had only been allowed in to fill his place. “But he’s back now, so you can’t play anymore.” And that didn’t just mean today. It meant ever.
Of course, the whole decree was silly since there are no player limits in tag. And who appointed Jim as headmaster of the playhouse anyway? But that didn’t matter. He had asserted himself as the leader and had the support of the other kids.
Carson was of course disappointed. It was a really fun game to miss out on. But more important, he would be cut out of the friendship-building time with the other boys. At home that night, Carson’s parents could tell something was wrong. When he shared what happened, Mom and Dad had an idea. They knew the boy’s parents. So two weeks later, they arranged for Carson and Jim to have something of a play date at the school football stadium when little else was going on. Carson, as instructed, took Jim around the field and showed him all of his favorite places: the best seats, hiding spots, and play areas. Basically, Carson took an interest in Jim and was nice to him.
Then he asked Jim to sit down on a bench and said to him very maturely,
Hey Jim, about that thing that happened a couple of weeks ago at recess, when you said I couldn’t play anymore. That really hurt me. It made me feel really bad.
Not exactly the conversation Jim expected.
But Jim’s response was equally mature, and probably just as surprising to Carson. He said, “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that too. I’ve been feeling guilty about that ever since. I’m really sorry.” And with that, it was over. Carson started playing tag with Jim at recess again. And these boys who had been avoiding each other for days were now at ease.
His parent’s well-planned intervention worked. And Carson executed his part flawlessly. Being nice to Jim and then confronting him was the furthest thing from Carson’s mind originally. But he had to admit, it did work. They were never best friends. But they did have a better relationship. And Jim never excluded Carson from any game again.
Bully #3: Brandon
Now, fast forward two years, and let’s see how Carson handled another experience with bullying. But this one happened four thousand miles away and involved more than just a game of tag. In his sixth-grade year, Carson’s family moved to Geneva, Switzerland. It was unlike any environment he’d experienced before. He was used to the conservative atmosphere of his suburban Christian school back home. At the new school, the language and topics of conversation among the boys were, let’s just say, worldly. And one of the worldlier of his peers was a kid named Brandon.
In addition to bad language, Brandon made a habit of slinging insults at the other boys around the locker room. Each of his targets had the pleasure of a tailor-made set of degrading comments constructed just for him. For Carson, one of his favorite barbs included “fat, stupid American.” He also enjoyed teasing Carson for his foreign accent. But the worst part was when he included Carson’s mother in his slurs. You can imagine what that sounded like.
Again, Carson’s parents were quick to pick up on his mood and ask what was going on. But unlike the last time, neither Mom nor Dad had any relationship with Brandon or his parents to arrange a meeting. And Carson had even less stomach for trying to befriend this boy through kindness than he had last time. They needed a different plan. So here’s what they did.
A few weeks later, on a field trip across the border in France, Carson saw his opportunity. The students were exploring a large cornfield. He waited until Brandon was separated just a bit from the other kids. Then he approached Brandon and asked if they could talk for a minute. He then led him off to the side. Perhaps not out of eyesight, but definitely out of earshot. And that’s when he delivered his one and only line he’d been practicing with his dad for two weeks.
He looked Brandon straight in the eye and said calmly, but seriously,
Do we have a problem?
“What do you mean?” Brandon said, a bit off balance
“I said, do we have a problem?” And then Carson briefly reminded him of the locker room incidents.
Now Brandon was in full backpedal, he said, “Uh . . . oh, that. No, I do that to everyone. Nothing personal, man.” Then after nervously stammering out a few more retractions, Brandon finished with, “I don’t have anything against you, Carson. Really. I’m sorry.”
“Good,” Carson said. And then he and Brandon walked back to join the other students.
Brandon never bothered Carson again.
Like the last example, this response to bullying seems simple. But also like the last one, it took practice. Carson and his father role-played the entire event several times, sometimes with Dad and sometimes with Carson playing the role of Brandon. When playing the villain, Dad challenged Carson with every potential response. “What? Why do you want to talk to me over there? Do you want to kiss me or something?” You get the point. After several scenes, Carson was comfortable playing his role.
Why these strategies worked
Let’s look at what else these two scenarios have in common, along with the first one that involved me. I would argue three key similarities.
First, and most obviously, in all three cases the victim confronted the bully face to face, as opposed to leaving the situation to get better on its own or relying only on adult intervention.
Second, in each case the victim addressed his tormentor with a statement or a question, not a threat. There wasn’t any “if you don’t stop being mean to me I’m going to . . .”
Third, and I think most important, in all three cases the victim got the bully away from his friends to have the conversation. Without any witnesses, the bully has nobody to impress and no reason to be defensive. The same confrontation, if played out in front of a cohort of friends, could easily backfire.
Hopefully your young person never has to confront this difficulty. But if they do, now you have a few responses to consider.
As with all my stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
- What were the similarities in Carson’s two bullying incidents? What were the differences?
- What’s the difference between what Carson said and a “threat”?
- How might the result have been different if Carson had said the same things in front of not just the bully, but in front of the bully’s friends?
- How do you know if a bullying situation is too dangerous to deal with this way and it might be better to handle another way? What might you do in that case?
[You can find this and 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story: Real-life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share. Sign up for my newsletter here to get a story a week delivered to your inbox.]