How do we parent to eliminate bullying from our culture?

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Jason Sperber

My wife and I have been talking and thinking about this for a while. Last December, we heard a heartbreaking episode of This American Life in which a Muslim American family’s American dream dissolves in the face of incessant bullying—by students and a teacher—of their elementary-school-aged daughter. The segment, act one of an episode titled “Shouting Across the Divide,” is called “Which One of Them is Not Like the Other?” As the parents of a young daughter striving to teach her how to live with dignity and stand for social justice, listening to this family’s story made us cry with frustration, anger, sadness and fear all at once, right there in the car.

Now, in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy, amidst all the media frenzy over school safety and gun control and mental illness and immigration and all the other topics of the day the talking heads take pains to attach to this human tragedy, we find ourselves back here again. Again and again, we hear stories of perceived or felt difference—ethnic, subcultural, academic, class, status, what-have-you—turned into isolation, alienation. And then these turn kids into both the bullied and those who bully them, hoping to wield a little power in order to mask over their own feelings of difference.

And then… We all were teenagers once, all remember these kind of end-of-the-world feelings, these power struggles for place, for status. But we live in a world and a culture where this emotional adolesence never seems to end. Every day at work, I spend countless hours pouring over blog comments written on my newspaper company’s website by adults who think it normal discourse to namecall, to attack, to bully others based on differences real and perceived, differences of opinion, of lifestyle, of belief. I have to remind myself that these are adults—that many of these people are parents, like me.

So what do we do? Where do we go from here? How do we parent against bullying, not just for our own children but for our culture and community? How do we make difference into something not used as a flashpoint for ridicule, alienation, or worse? I’ll end with the words my wife wrote that sparked this post in the first place:

When I send her out into the world on her own, I want her to have the strength to defend herself from bullies. But I also want to make a plea to all the parents out there to do everything in your power not to raise a bully. In American culture, bullying is almost accepted as a normal part of childhood. Now that I am a parent, I can’t accept that version of the world without question. We need to do something to break the cycle of teasing and bullying. We need to be aware of instances when we model disrespect and bullying in front of our kids. We need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves what we actively do everyday to teach our children about respecting others’ opinions, personal space, privacy, and beliefs. Do we prey on our children and chip away at their confidence? Or, at the other extreme, do we give them an inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement?

Jason Sperber is a former stay-at-home-dad of a 2-year-old daughter (“The Pumpkin”) and the husband of a family physician (“la dra.”) living in California’s Central Valley. He is currently a writer/blogger/online community manager. A former high school social studies teacher, he has a background in ethnic studies and education for social justice. He writes the blog daddy in a strange landand coordinates Rice Daddies, the group blog by Asian American dads. He can be reached at daddyinastrangeland@mac.com.

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