I find myself in a parenting dilemma, and I’m probably not the only father with it. And that is how to deal with bullies. Or rather, how to raise my daughter to deal with bullies.
Throughout the years, the conventional wisdom has changed dramatically. In the fifties, nerds just accepted the abuse and cried in their rooms. They eventually became Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak, but they probably don’t have very good self-esteem. They become like Marty’s father in Back to the Future. I grew up reciting the “sticks and stones” mantra. Kids my age were taught to ignore bullies. That bullies are cowards. That if you don’t give them a reason, they’ll move onto something else. That violence solves nothing.
But then we grew up, and we realized that words do hurt, and we’re all in therapy because of it. We learned that not all bullies are cowards–some of them are capable of infinite cruelty and inhuman emotion. We learned that they don’t need a reason to antagonize you. That if you ignore bullies, you’ll be a senior in high school and some freshman will kick you in the ribs while you’re sitting reading a book. Passive resistance and all that. It doesn’t really work for the little guy.
But I also know that if you throw a punch at them, you get expelled from school. Or assault charges. You might develop a taste for violence or learn to solve your problems with a fist to the face. I don’t know how it works for girls–I’m sure it’s different–but the principle is the same: you’re either eating or eaten.
My daughter’s two now. When she was one, she was pretty passive, as most children are. If someone took a toy from her, she looked bewildered that the toy disappeared, and then found something else to do. Kids that age don’t comprehend bullies or possession. But now she’s at the age where if someone takes her ball, she tries to get it back. Here’s where the dilemma comes in.
Should I tell her no, don’t fight for it. Or yes, fight for it. Stand up to that kid trying to take your ball when it wasn’t his to begin with? Or let him have it, it’s not worth getting in a fight over?
I don’t know the answer. I know what I was taught wasn’t quite right. But I also know that teaching her to fight back everytime you come into conflict is a dangerous path.
The ideal for me is to be able to teach her proper judgement. To know when to walk away and when to fight for it, when not to shrink back and when to acquiesce. It’s a cautious road, but it seems to be the one that’s most in line with my values. We’ve found that blanket statements and inane philosophies don’t work. And if I do my job right as a parent, I’ll succeed.
But what do you say in that instance when you saw that kid take her ball, and the other parents are watching you, and she’s fighting back, and you know she did the right thing.