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Do Kids Need to Learn How to Stand Up For Themselves?

News about the "epidemic of bullying" is everywhere these days. Some suggest that it is worse because we aren't teaching our kids to stand up for themselves.

You‘ve probably heard the saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

As a young child, the adults in my life drilled this into me; it was offered as a way to cope with the teasing I endured at school.

To me, it was a load of bunk, then and now. Words have a lot of power to hurt—maybe even more so now in the era of texting over talking?

My parents’ and teachers’ good intention was to encourage me to be tougher; they told me I had to develop a “thicker skin.”

I’m still working on that one, frankly.

Flash forward a few decades, and I’m in the parent’s seat now. My son is getting ready to take his first steps onto the playground this fall, and I’m preparing him to handle schoolyard politics.

As I recently wrote about, a few weeks ago I attended a talk given by a longtime local educator about the conditions and challenges our kids are currently facing.

There was a lot to think about in that talk, but one point in particular she made on the subject of bullying has stuck with me.

She confirmed that the issue is one that occupies a lot of time and attention in school, more so now than in the past.  But, one observation she shared surprised me.

She said that she has observed that kids today “don’t know how to stand up for themselves.”

At the first sign of trouble, she says they are heading to an authority figure to resolve conflicts for them.

Having been through my own struggles as a kid, and factoring in my husband’s own history with bullies, I know that helping my son have the tools to handle the spectrum from innocuous teasing to serious bullying is important.

My bullies were mostly of the verbally taunting variety. In my husband's case, his bullies became brutally physical. While I was taught to turn the other cheek and "suck it up," my husband was taught to "never start a fight, but to be sure to finish it.”

Neither worked well for us. I ended up with years of issues from being a victim, and my husband landed in private school for a time, although the bullies did eventually leave him alone. So, I’m aiming for some sort of middle ground that allows my son to stand up for himself, as this educator said is needed, yet not land himself in serious trouble.

But exactly how to do that in today's environment, the guidelines for when and how to get help, or for when a parent should intervene feels unclear to me.  The resources I commonly turn to, and the experiences of my fellow parents aren't always agreeing.

Many parenting resources I checked out counsel some version of what I was told as a child—ignore, avoid, deflect, “act brave,” use your sense of humor, and finally, tell an adult.

However, some of my fellow parents say that incorrectly puts the responsibility on the victim.

They say it needs to be taken more seriously and directly addressed with the child with whom yours has conflict, either with the parent, or the school if necessary.

But what impact does that have on the child’s relationships? Is there a middle ground?

This week, I’d like to hear from parents and educators out there in the trenches. I'd like you to consider a few questions, and share what works and what doesn’t work when handling schoolyard relationships:

  1. Do our children need to be taught how to stand up for themselves better, and what specifically do they need to do? Is it different for boys and girls?
  2. Do you make a distinction between "harmless teasing" and more "serious bullying?" 
  3. When do you think a parent should intervene, and how? 
Kirsten Branch February 17, 2012 at 09:23 PM
What kinds of things/practices do you think lays a good ground work for kids feeling they can speak up for themselves when needed, and do so for others? Please share your experience with things you did with your kids. Thanks!
Kirsten Branch February 18, 2012 at 03:37 PM
73% of our poll responders reported that they have been bullied. Have you or your kids? Please join the discussion and share what has worked and hasn't worked to handle it. Thanks for weighing in!
Sherry McCreedy February 19, 2012 at 04:45 PM
I posted earlier about restorative practices in general and want to share something specific with you that I have found effective for encouraging empathy and accountability, especially when you encounter people in the midst of open conflict. One of the big concerns we have is about accountability for harm done. That is, simply talking about our feelings, then holding hands and singing kumbaya (no offense, it's a great song...) don't go far enough. Yet we also know that punishment only goes so far, or too far. In fact, kids tell me they often don't "tell" on other kids for two reasons: 1) they don't want them to be punished; and/or 2) punishment doesn't work, and can even make things worse. So how to create conditions so people can understand how they are impacting others? One of the most effective things I've done (in my family and beyond, including as a middle school teacher) is to facilitate a dialogue based on these questions: •“What happened?” •“What harm resulted?” •“What needs to be done to make things right?" source: http://www.iirp.edu/pdf/beth06_davey2.pdf Anyone can learn to facilitate a dialogue using these questions. This process probably works best for addressing relatively small and some medium size issues. If in the dialogue you discover on something bigger, you might need to move to a more formal restorative process (see the link, above for descriptions of more options).
Sherry McCreedy February 19, 2012 at 04:45 PM
A couple of comments: 1) The process is voluntary. No one should be forced to speak. If people come to understand that this is a way to address conflict that actually works, they will become more interested in engaging. If you use the process to set people up for punishment or painful shame, they won't want to use it. 2) Ask each person each question, and with everyone present; 3) In our culture most of us are thinking in terms of blame, so you might get an answer like "He did it" or It's her fault" in response to the 1st question. If this happens, just ask again. You're looking for each person to get a chance to tell their version of what happened. You're NOT looking for ultimate Truth. Once everyone has answered, move on to the next question; 4) With the 2nd question, you might need to coach a bit, if people are still learning about how they impact the world, or are worried about punishment; 5) Be open to what comes out in response to the 3rd question. People are generally really good at knowing what needs to be done! *Important* If the action plan includes something to be done in the future, include a specific time for follow up after that to see how things are going. 6) Throughout, listen for the humanity of the person speaking. If you have skill with this, you can reflect it back to them out loud. This is a great way to support everyone to understand themselves and each other better.
Rick Kemsley April 27, 2012 at 03:44 PM
Thanks Kristen for bringing up this important message- Yes I was bullied when I was a kid and I defended myself. Now let me say that there are better ways of handling these situations. I own Tao Sports Taekwondo and I would first say that the very last thing you should do is to have to protect yourself physically. There is a program out ther called Verbal Judo, it was created for and taught to police forces thoughout the state and country to handle people by using your words and not using physical violence. It was then adapted to children to prevent bulling. Go look up the information- verbaljudo.com. I am an instructor for this program and I can tell you that it works. Look for a program like this for your child and they will learn how to deal with these issues.

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