How to Talk to Your (Young) Kids About Bullying
When I first spotted Amanda Todd’s video posted on an anti-bullying website, I thought her to be an exceptionally brave young woman. If you’re unfamiliar with her story, she’ll tell you about it herself. In a nine-minute You-Tube video that starts with “Hi!” (the exclamation point is dotted with a heart) and ends with a gruesome tale of heartlessness, cyber-stalking, assault, anxiety, and depression, Amanda Todd will, via a series of flashcards, chronicle her long journey of abuse.
It was only after I had watched the video that I learned she had committed suicide, and I was beside myself. I was devastated. How could...? But where was...? If only there were...? Who the hell...? And that’s the one that stuck: who the hell would let their children torment another human being in such a way? Where were her perpetrator's MOTHERS for crying out loud?
My husband, A., thinks that they, the mothers, probably didn’t know what their kids were doing. “Ignorance and indifference are totally different,” he reminded me. And he’s right. It’s one thing to know that your child is essentially murdering another child through cyber-bullying and proceed to ignore it, it’s quite another to not know about the cyber-bullying at all. (The comments these kids left when they found out Amanda had survived an attempted suicide were the kinds of things you would hear in a civil war; they spoke to her as if she were sub-human, as if she somehow deserved verbal, emotional, physical abuse, and even death. DEATH! To be fair, this is her version of the story. But even if she’s exaggerated the details, she has clearly been the victim of repeated crimes.) Perhaps some mothers fall somewhere in between: they know their children are participating in unsavory ways in online conversations, but assume these contributions are harmless? This seems even worse than complete ignorance or complete indifference.
So where does that leave us mothers? Do we disallow the use of technology unless it can be carefully monitored? Do we then closely monitor our kids even as they become pubescent and confusing and dependent on access to private space? Or do we think bigger? This morning I woke up and told my three-year-old this story:
Sarah: Yesterday I found out that a girl named Amanda Todd died.
M: That’s a silly name.
Sarah: Why is it a silly name?
M: Why is that her name?
Sarah: That’s the name her mommy gave her, just like M is the name I gave you and D is the name we gave your little brother.
M: Oh, okay.
Sarah: So this girl Amanda died. I feel very sad about it and I want to teach you something.
M: Why did she die?
Sarah: That’s the story I’m going to tell you. See, Amanda made some bad choices. Do you ever make bad choices? Like when you whine and cry instead of just asking politely?
M: (hesitantly) Um, yes.
Sarah: Right, you make bad choices sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Mommys make bad choices sometimes. EVERYBODY makes bad choices sometimes. As long as we’re not hurting other people, it’s okay to make bad choices sometimes. It doesn’t mean we’re bad people.
Sarah: So this girl Amanda made some bad choices and the kids she went to school with were REALLY mean to her because she made some bad choices. Now, if somebody makes a bad choice and it hurts you, it’s okay to tell that person that you don’t like what they’re doing. Is it mean to say “I don’t like that, please stop”?
Sarah: Right, that’s not mean. Is it mean to say, “I don’t like you, you’re not my friend, you’re not a good person.”
M: Yes, that’s mean.
Sarah: Right, that IS mean. We wouldn’t say those mean things to our friends. It’s okay to tell somebody that you don’t like what they’re doing. It’s okay to ask them to stop. But it’s not okay to be mean just because somebody made some bad choices.
M: So why did she die?
Sarah: So Amanda felt so sad that these people had been mean to her that she died. Her heart hurt so much that she died.
M: Oh. I don’t want to die.
Sarah: No, of course not. Well, everybody dies at some point, but usually we get old first. Amanda was still a kid and she died because people were mean to her and she felt really, really sad. I want you to know that it’s NOT okay to be mean to people just to make them sad. Do you understand?
M: Yes, Mommy. Will you tell me that story again?
I did. And then I did again. And it made me feel better. And (I think) it introduced something simple but profound to M in a way that he could digest. As despondent as Amanda Todd’s death makes me feel about the state of our connection to our own humanity, I felt better teaching my son the basics of decent versus indecent behavior. I hope other parents take a cue and talk to their children, young as they may be, about the same topic. By the time they need to apply the lesson they’re already out of your sphere of influence.
Let’s teach our kids early how to recognize and respond to the emotions of others. Let’s raise a generation of kids who are NOT perpetrators of these cyber crimes. Let’s not shy away from this because it’s ambitious and sticky and difficult. Because while it is all those things, it is also imperative. Let’s do this together. Let’s do it for Amanda.