In order to help our children develop into caring, productive members of society, there is a lot on our parenting “to-do” list — teaching kindness and empathy, encouraging autonomy, and modeling industriousness and self-sufficiency, to name a few.
The problem and possible solutions of bullying have hit a global nerve recently. They’ve become the focus of lawsuits at universities, they’ve extended to cyber-bullying and beyond, and they’ve even been featured on “Glee.”
Bullying by nature is bad, we reason. Whether it’s on the playground or in the corner offices of Fox News executives, we have learned to keep a keen eye out for instances of it and stop it in its tracks.
What isn’t addressed as comprehensively, however, is how bullying and controlling others starts from within. The adult who bullies is a child within who has relentlessly bullied herself — for not being good enough, pretty enough, successful enough, a good enough athlete, or a good enough “fill in the blank.”
These would-be bullyers, in short, never learned to treat others with respect and kindness because they never learned to treat themselves with respect and kindness. Maybe they were bullied by their parents and peers. Maybe they felt unsafe being who they really were. Maybe they were filled with so much angst and insecurity that the only possible reprieve for these intolerable feelings was to create so much pain in others that it would supplant their own.
I was bullied as a child. So much so that I recall never taking off my big bulky jacket in junior high because I was convinced that my big butt would be the butt of all the jokes. I vividly recall in third grade going to the nurse, pretending to be sick, and moaning in “pain” just to get the nurse to call my mom and bring me home. That’s how much I loathed being bullied.
I realized, even at that young age, though, that this ill-will toward me by other “mean girls” said more about them than it did about me.
My mom used to recommend that I tell these girls to *&#$ off. I refused and actually cringed in full-on tween embarrassment, knowing this would do nothing to help my plight and would probably make things worse!
So, how can bullying be remedied from the inside out?
It starts with teaching children to have compassion for themselves.
And how can parents start teaching self-love at a young age?
Try some of these suggestions:
1. Encourage children to accept compliments. Have them look the complimenter in the eye and say thank you in a sincere way. Accepting compliments and letting them wash over you is a form of self-love and acceptance.
2. If/when you find your child trash-talking himself, ask him where that opinion came from and why he feels that way. Examine it, counter it, be curious about it, and talk about it.
3. Have your children take on challenges that get them out of their comfort zone but not into their stress/unattainable zone. Feeling a sense of accomplishment through hard work and effort gives them an appreciation for what they are capable of when they step out on the skinny branch. But it also serves as a conduit to self-appreciation without the hyperbole of an aggrandized ego. In fact, there is nothing more grounding and humbling than working hard, failing, trying again and again, and then accomplishing something. It allows for compassion and understanding that others may struggle in some ways too.
4. Avoid being critical of yourself or others in front of your children. Our children are so observant and porous. Whether conscious or not, they will take on the values and traits of who we are and what WE embody — their fearless and sometimes feckless leaders. When children see self-compassion and acceptance in their parents, they feel less fear and anxiety to be “perfect” themselves and are less likely to expect perfection in others.
5. Don’t just teach about diversity, LIVE diversity. When we are fearful and unfamiliar of what is different, some shy away and disengage, and others bully out of feeling threatened and out of control. When I was in elementary school there was a young girl in a wheelchair who had cerebral palsy. I’ll admit that while I was never inclined to be unkind to someone, I definitely didn’t go out of my way to befriend her. My mom insisted that I invite her over for playdates, confront whatever fears — irrational or not — that I had about a person in a wheelchair, and learn who the human being was. We ended up becoming good friends. I am grateful that my mom forced this issue. Children may not be able to do this on their own. Parents have to play a role in demystifying what is different and embracing what binds us together.
Bullying is not just a hot topic and trendy adolescent problem. It’s pervasive across all cultures and in all mediums — in media, on the internet, on the playground, and in our own homes. It also exists within ourselves. As parents, we are obligated to confront the inside bullies and teach about having kindness and love for ourselves (and then, of course, toward others as an extension of that).
How do you help your children create positive self-esteem and kindness toward themselves?