Friday, September 21, 2012

Make Your Neighborhood a Bully Free Zone

When my family moved to a new house and new neighborhood in the 5th grade,  I started attending a new school.  I quickly became the target of pretty severe bullying.  I was taunted in the classroom, whenever the teacher looked away.  I was forced to spend recess in the special education room for fear of violence on the playground, and I was followed home on many occasions by "mean girls" calling me every nasty name you could think of as I ran to my front door.

Bullying can have a real impact on a child or adult.  Knowing you don't fit in is hard enough, being taunted for it relentlessly day in and day out can be unbearable.  But you can make a difference!  You can choose not to tolerate bullying in your home and in your community.  Here are 5 ways to make your neighborhood a Bully Free Zone:

1) Make sure your home is a bully free zone, first and foremost.  How?  Work to end any violence in your own home: parents yelling at one another, parents yelling at kids, kids fighting or physically hurting one another.  All of those things are not acceptable and do not set an example of a peaceful, caring, cooperative environment.  Watch what you say in front of your children, if you use demeaning language toward your partner or your children- they will learn to use that language as well.  If you gossip about people you don't like (OR WORSE) kids in your neighborhood that you think are "brats" or "terrors" you are basically giving your children a license to view and treat people that way.

2) Acknowledge people.  It sounds simple, right?  This means turning off your cell phone when you go into the grocery store.  Talking to the cashier, the teller, the teacher at your child's school at pick up.  It means saying hello to your neighbors when you notice they are out for a walk or watering their lawns.  It also means seeing children as real people.  Kids, too, desire to be seen and heard.  If kids are playing on your street when you get home say hello!  Don't ignore their presence as you race for your front door.  I will never forget many years ago when I went to a forum where homeless people spoke about their experience on the streets.  The number one thing they said was difficult about being homeless: being ignored and passed over by people walking by them on the streets.  Not being hungry or without shelter- but feeling invisible.  Every single person on that panel said that first and foremost they just wanted someone to look them in the eyes and say, "hello."

3) Know the names of the people in your community.  People are more accountable when you know their name!  It makes people feel seen and heard in a way that nothing else does.  If a child in your community is being bullied and feels like no one sees or knows them, you never know, you could make a huge difference in their day just by remembering them by name.  And if a child is bullying other children, it helps for them to know that they are seen and heard, too.

4) Speak up when you see someone being bullied.  If someone speaks to me in a rude tone in front of my children (or not), I make a point to say "please don't speak to me that way."  Then, I try very hard to maintain a sunny demeanor while finishing out my conversation.  It's a simple way to say that you have boundaries and will not tolerate rude, unkind behavior.   Taking it a step further, be sure to step in if you see someone else being talked to in a rude, unkind way.  Of course, use your discretion when it comes to the safety of all involved, but I would say that if you are on the playground and you overhear a child being taunted or teased- step in to defend that child whether the child is yours or not.

5) Embrace diversity.  Make sure to teach your children that other children or families have different ways of doing things and have different values.  Make sure they know that children of different backgrounds are to be valued as equals, who deserve love and respect.   Don't allow pejorative terms in your home or outside of it.  Words like, "lame, fat, or gay" are not acceptable derogatory terms in my house- and they shouldn't be acceptable in your house either.  Recognize, too, that often bullies are people who themselves are hurting.  Of course, it is important to teach your children boundaries, but also, when appropriate reach other to children who may at first appear aggressive or angry.  You just might find that they are struggling themselves.

Bullying, at times, can feel like an overwhelming problem that is out of our control.  But each one us has a role to play in our community- and the more we work together to know and support one another, the better!

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