Years ago, I was helping out in my daughter’s 3rd grade class. The classroom was a room of organized chaos as the parents and I helped out on the latest project. But the vibe in the class was good as everyone participated in something that was more creative than doing seatwork for hours on end. But in a corner of the room, there was a different vibe. One of the kids, a noticeably larger kid than the rest of his 3rd grade peers, was doing his best to create conflict. He was taking pens from another student to finish his project, and claiming them as his own. And when the student complained, the bigger kid yelled out that they were his. Seeing that he wasn’t going to get away with it, he finally threw his papers and the pens across the room in defiance.
“Outside!” the teacher yelled out. The kid was angry at being called out, and stomped out of the room, slamming the door as hard as he could. The teacher made a quick call to the office, and then went back to her students.
This wasn’t the first time that I had seen this kid act out in the classroom. My daughter had shared a class with him once before, and the story had always been the same. Teachers didn’t know what to do with him, and he didn’t care one bit about school or in behaving properly. But for some reason, I liked the kid. He was funny and had a great smile. And I knew there was something underneath that just wasn’t being reached.
I quietly excused myself from the classroom and joined the kid outside. He was kicking the wall to the classroom in frustration and defiance, determined that if he was already going to get in trouble, he was going to make sure that he got enough of it in. I sat next to him.
“Hey,” I said. He didn’t answer. “Rough day, huh?” He gave me a sideways glance and continued kicking the wall. “You know, your teacher called the office. And they are probably going to call your parents,” I said.
“So,” he said.
“Well, what do you think your mom is going to say?” I asked him.
“I don’t have a mom,” he said.
“Alright, what about your dad?”
“He won’t care,” he said.
The kicking of the wall did finally cease as he finally opened up a tiny bit about his home life. His dad actually got mad at him all the time. And he also lived with his grandmother. We talked about what things he liked about school (nothing, he reported), and what he liked to do for fun. And throughout the conversation I could see that this was a boy who was crying out for attention, somebody to notice him as a good kid and worth something. And he wasn’t getting that at home, at school, anywhere.
Sometimes we, as a community, fail our kids.
It’s not like my family is immune to bullies, or at being angry over victimizing members of our family. Just this summer, the Taz was involved in a skirmish with a kid that was three times bigger than him. It was a scary situation for him, and for me that had to then think quickly about how to deal with it. In the beginning I saw red over a giant of a kid picking on a kid so much smaller than him. And I was ready to string him up in a mob mentality. But as I talked with him and his parents, I saw a young boy inside of a big body that was so insecure that he took offense at my little son laughing at him.
“Almost 30% of youth in the United States (or over 5.7 million) are estimated to be involved in bullying as either a bully, a target of bullying, or both. In a recent national survey of students in grades 6-10, 13% reported bullying others, 11% reported being the target of bullies, and another 6% said that they bullied others and were bullied themselves.” (www.safeyouth.org)
Thing is, it’s hard to show love to a kid who is lashing out. You can’t hug a thrashing wildcat. And let’s face it, if it’s our kid on the receiving end of a bully’s rage, we’d prefer to throttle the kids than to try and help him. Thing is, this kid had it so ingrained that he was unlovable that he was determined to fit the mold. Focus on a kid’s bad side too much, and that’s all they will see as well.
I was in conversation this weekend with a man who did work with kids who were classified as bullies. He passionately told me about these kids. These were the kids who were picking on smaller kids to feel power. They were the ones who decided that the rules didn’t apply to them. They were the ones being sent out of the classroom so that the rest of the class could actually learn something without disruption. Many of these kids who were trouble in their younger years were the same ones who were joining gangs or causing illegal trouble when they were older. The black and white of it is that they are a problem. They are picking on our kids and making them victims, causing so much fear in some kids that they are afraid to go to school.
But there is a gray side. And that is what their family life looks like at home, and the reaction to them as events escalate. It is very rare for a kid from a loving and attentive family to join a gang. Gangs feed on those kids who aren’t getting love and attention at home. And the kids who join, join up with the desire of being accepted once and for all, to have a FAMILY. And on the outside that is what they feel they are getting. For once, they have a group of people that are there for them through thick and thin. And the loyalty in a gang is strong. So strong that when a kid decides that they can’t be involved in the tumultuous life of a gang, it is near impossible to get out.
How would a bully’s life change if they had someone there to tell them that they matter, that they are worth it, that their talents are great and their possibilities even greater? The program that this man briefly told me about sounded so hopeful and enlightening, it made me wonder if programs like this exist in our community. What are we doing, or what can be done, to help change the direction of bullies who are going down a slippery slope? I hear all the time about programs dedicated for victims of bullying. And that is definitely necessary. But are there any bully prevention programs that help the child that might be reacting to something bigger than just victimization, and to ward off future violence and trouble?