As I drove home from a conference in New York City yesterday, I was listening to “Overcoming” from January 3, 2014 on NPR’s TED Radio Hour Podcast. One of the stories in this particular hour (starts at minute 13:35) was from a spoken word artist, Shane Koyczan, who talks about his experiences being bullied as a child. He discusses how we are expected to define ourselves at an early age – and that if we don’t do it for ourselves, others will. Hence, he let others define him for a while in his adolescence, and became something he despised – from bullied, to bully. He gives a glimpse into his painful experiences in To This Day, his spoken-word poem about bullying, here.
It was particularly interesting timing that I happened to listen to this story yesterday. Later in the afternoon, I picked my 11-year-old up at the bus stop. He got into the car and burst into tears. After some coercing to tell me what was wrong, he admitted that he had been verbally attacked by a group of boys in the locker room after gym class. Apparently, he had the “audacity” to change from his shorts back into his sweatpants in the general locker room area, instead of going into a stall. Therefore, in the minds of 11- and 12-year-olds trying to be cool, he was suddenly considered gay. One boy started out by yelling that he was gay, and a group of more boys chimed in and began chanting, “He’s gay, he’s gay, he’s gay.”
Now let me be very clear on one thing. I openly talk with both of my sons (11 and 8) about what “gay” means. They will tell you two definitions (I know, because I checked yet again with my younger son this morning, and he recited what we’ve talked about):
- To be happy or gleeful
- A slang term for someone who is romantically interested in the same gender
I also instill in my sons that there is nothing wrong with being gay. We have many gay friends, and we delight in their happiness, support them in their struggles and define them by who they are, not who they love. My sons have been taught to see beyond sexuality, gender, race, etc. At least, it’s an ongoing lesson in our home to love people for who they are, and to try and live outside of life’s enduring stereotypes.
Let me also be clear that I don’t think my son is gay. But I wouldn’t give a damn if he was.
Nonetheless, I was extremely upset about the bullying and the pack mentality. Even some of my son’s “friends” joined in, and this was very confusing to him.
At first, I was shocked. I honestly didn’t know what to say. I was angry. I envisioned myself pulling a Debbie (Leslie Mann) from This is 40, and screaming at the boy who started it all. But obviously, I couldn’t do that.
What I could do was talk to my son. And we talked a lot. We talked about how the scenario made him feel. We talked about why he didn’t stand up for himself more. We talked about being embarrassed and scared and the pit in his stomach. We talked about how I handled my own bullying episodes in high school. We looked at videos and talked about quotes, like “Being brave isn’t supposed to be easy,” from Sam Berns, the 17-year-old Massachusetts boy who recently died from Progeria.
We talked about being gay. We talked about tolerance and acceptance for others. We talked about how it’s so much harder to stand up and do the right thing when jumping on the bandwagon to do the wrong thing isn’t only easier, but considered cooler (at this age).
I am so grateful that my son talks to me and trusts me. I want it to last. I never want him to feel I’ve betrayed him.
And so – what else can I do as a mother to help him? I don’t want to make things worse for him. Would talking to the bully’s parents do that? What about the school? What if they pulled him and all the other boys into the principle’s office and then he was an outcast forever?
There are never clear cut, easy answers in a situation like this.
I decided to keep it simple, yet still take a chance. I took to the Facebook page for the parents of his class. Typical posts are about upcoming events, PTO meetings, fundraisers and the like. But I wanted to ask one simple thing of the parents. I took a deep breath and I wrote,
My son was bullied again today in the 6th grade boys locker room – called “gay” for changing IN A LOCKER ROOM. He identified the boy who started it, but many joined in chanting “he’s gay.”
Please, I implore you to speak to your children about tolerance, bullying and standing up for what’s right – instead of jumping in on what isn’t – just to “look cool.”
I was nervous. Would I be chastised for bringing such a sensitive issue to a page usually reserved for fun and light hearted posts? Would I be considered an overly sensitive single Mom who seemed to have no one to talk to at home? Would I put my son in a position of being bullied even more for “telling?” Would I come across as upset about the “gay” comment vs the act of bullying?
Within hours the post had about 20 comments (notably, all mothers except for one Dad) and several people reached out to me with private messages. I am happy to report that all of them were open minded and supportive. Most of them said that they had talked to their children about the situation, whether or not they were involved, and met my plea to discuss tolerance and bravery in doing the right thing. Many suggested I speak to the school, and shared their experiences in doing so (positive and negative).
One brave Mom reached out to say that she spoke to her son and he admitted he was not only present, but joined in on the taunting. She said he wanted to apologize. And not only did he do so via phone to my son, but he talked about how he had been bullied for his size before, and that he should have known how much it hurts.
This is why we have to keep talking to our children. They are faced with choices every day to be the brave outlier, or the follower – of both good and bad situations. I encourage you to show them examples over and over again of those who stand up for what’s right. Those who are different or “weird,” as my son is also called, or those who think differently.
I recently watched Jobs with my sons and it’s actually helped in this situation. Seeing that Steve Jobs thought differently, had to fight to get people to understand him, and was fired from his own company but never gave up, has been a great source of lessons for my son. He’s even changed his Instagram profile to read “Considered weird. But so was Steve Jobs.”
Although I’m not as cool as Steve Jobs, I always tell my sons that weird is good. It means you’ve got your own mind and the heart to think for yourself. I never want that to be squeezed out of their personalities.
And although it was inevitable that someone said “kids will be kids,” as adults often do in these sort of situations, I was encouraged by the reactions and responses we received. We can’t take bullying lightly. At such vulnerable ages, bullying can shape someone’s opinion of themselves before they are even sure who they are or what they want to be. And its negative effects can last a lifetime.
We can’t dismiss abusive behaviors and we need to teach children not to jump on the bandwagon. What if the next time that bandwagon is to try drugs? Or beat someone because they’re different? Or to drive drunk? I imagine, like me, you would want your son or daughter to say “Nope, not me. I’m not doing that, I don’t care what you say.” And I would expect my sons to not only not join in on a situation like the one my son faced yesterday – but to stand up against the crowd and do the right thing. To be that brave soul. To lead, not follow.
The bigger lessons start now with even the seemingly “smallest” of situations. Keep talking. Keep teaching. Keep supporting one another. We can make change, together.