I was going to write about my three-year-old’s experience this week starting pre-k in a brand new school, but this story prompted me to write about something else instead. Sadly, although back-to-school season is a time that kids of all ages look forward to with great excitement, some kids dread this time of year, because it’s a return to the place where they must face their worst fears, day in and day out. For kids who are bullied, the first day back at school is not an occasion to celebrate with new clothes, smiling faces posing for mom’s camera, and hallway high-fives. I can’t even hold back the sting of tears and the anger I feel when reading yet another story of a life lost to cruelty inflicted by children. This should not keep happening. This is wrong. And there is just a constant feeling these stories evoke, that sickly familiar we should do something! feeling.
It’s the clarion call of justice, which does not fall on deaf ears; yet the stirring such events cause quickly give way to complacency — the resignation to carry on as usual, hoping that someone will do something. But who is someone? That someone is you and me. When we leave the tough action that is needed to effect powerful change to the hands of a generic, faceless someone, nothing gets done. Things stay the same, and another tragedy shocks the news headlines and causes yet another uproar that is temporary, however raucous.
So what can we do? Some of us feel called to the helping professions — social work, counseling, child advocate, nonprofit leader — and feel great about what we do, yet limited in our ability to knock down the institutional barriers to making real progress in terms of educating the public and bringing about meaningful change. Some of us volunteer, attempting to juggle work and family duties with the added stress of work that is extremely rewarding, but unpaid, and therefore tends to get left behind when push comes to shove and one more to-do simply can’t be added to the calendar.
But what can we do as parents? A thought recently occurred to me. If I had a mission statement for my role as a parent to my two young girls, it would no doubt be lengthy, but I think it would highlight this as its major goal: I will succeed as a parent if I instill in my children the ability to not just be kind, but to practice kindness. What do I mean by this? I mean that it is not enough to simply be sympathetic toward victims of bullying, to the underprivileged, to those who suffer great injustices and face tragic consequences. Instead, I want my children to see it as their role — as a fundamental aspect of their humanity — to seek out and provide aid to those in need. I will be disappointed if my girls do little more than express sadness or disapproval — privately, in the safety of their own minds or among trusted peers — of bullying that they see happening right in front of them. To do my job as a parent, I need to teach my daughters to intervene when someone is suffering. If a new girl at school is being taunted for not having the right shoes or haircut, my kids need to be the ones to march right up to that child and make her their new friend. If a boy gets pushed to the ground in the hallway between classes, while other kids shuffle by like so many scared sheep, one of my kids should be right there offering a hand to help him up and encouraging him to speak with a teacher or other trusted adult.
If my kids are able to set aside their fears and stand up for what is right and just, however unpopular it may make them in the eyes of their peers, I will know that I have done my job as a parent. I’m not saying I want my kids to be martyrs, spending their school days constantly worrying about everyone around them and making student life that much more uncomfortable. But honestly, this “safe school climate” jargon everyone throws around these days will never translate into widespread culture change if I don’t teach my children this: that there is strength in kindness, and that bullying — as well as the passive, stand-by culture that allows bullying to persist — is a symptom of the ultimate human weakness.