Have “the talk” about bullying. The truth is, nobody ever thinks their kid is a bully. It’s always someone else’s child who is calling other kids hurtful names, pushing them around on the playground, and sending nasty texts. But according to Patkin, even if you don’t believe your children have even thought about crossing the line, talking to them about bullying is crucial. Have a specific discussion with them about what bullying behaviors look like, and make sure your kids know that these behaviors will not be tolerated in your family. (Think of it as having “the talk” about not using drugs, for example.)
Make sure your kids know that bullying is hurtful. Especially when they’re younger, kids might not have the emotional maturity to make the connection between their words or actions and how they make another child feel. Explain to your children that bullying can have devastating effects on others (even if that wasn’t the bully’s intent) and on the perpetrators themselves.
Share statistics with your children. If you feel it’s age appropriate, take a few minutes to research bullying statistics with your child. A quick internet search will reveal a large number of disturbing facts. For instance, according to the National Institutes of Health :
• About 47 teens are bullied every five minutes.
• Seventy-one percent of students report bullying as an ongoing problem.
• About 282,000 students are reportedly attacked in American high schools each month.
• A teenager attempts suicide every 30 minutes as a result of bullying.
Seeing these statistics can prove to your child that bullying isn’t just something that Mom and Dad are needlessly worried about—it’s something that is happening at their schools and to their peers.
Teach your kids to intercede. Teaching your kids not to participate in bullying behaviors is a good start, but it’s also important that they not allow their peers to be tormented. Encourage them to step in if they see another child being treated badly—if they are comfortable doing so. If not, make sure your child knows to talk to a teacher or other authority figure when another child is being tormented. Even an anonymous note on a desk can open an adult’s eyes to a bad situation.
Be involved every day. It’s tempting to think that the best thing we can do for our children is to provide a good life for them, to include not only the basics of food, clothing, and shelter, but also a good school, weekly piano lessons, and an everybody-plays sports team to participate in. No, those things aren’t at all bad, but they also can’t take the place of what’s truly the most important thing in a child’s development: his parents. Patkin is adamant that no activity, program, or hobby can replace time with your kids. Being involved in their lives on a daily, nitty-gritty basis will allow them to stand the best chance when it comes to making all the right choices (not just avoiding bullying). Don’t leave your children’s development in the hands of others or up to chance.
Don’t be afraid to discipline. Patkin isn’t advocating “spare the rod; spoil the child”—but he is saying that kids need to be aware of boundaries from a young age. They need to know that if they violate the rules, there will be consequences. Period. It’s important to squelch bullying behaviors the moment they appear instead of writing them off as a “stage” or “normal part of childhood.” For instance, if you see your daughter being nasty or overly bossy to her younger brother, tell her that she needs to play more nicely. Pre-determine consequences that will be enacted if the behavior doesn’t change and make sure your daughter knows about them. Then stick to your guns.
Explain the why. Making sure your children know the rules of good behavior—and the consequences when they step over the line—is a good first step. But if you want those behaviors to “stick” when you’re not around (not to mention after your kids leave home), it’s a good idea to make sure they understand why the rules are there in the first place. For example, explain why you don’t make jokes about the way somebody looks—because it hurts feelings!
Be a good example. You can’t hold your kids to one standard of behavior and then flout those rules yourself. Make sure that your own actions are friendly, compassionate, and courteous. Say “please” and “thank you” to wait staff, for example, and resist the urge to browbeat that snarky salesperson into shutting up and helping you more quickly. And if you do slip up, be sure to admit your mistake and point out to your kids how you could have reacted differently.
Encourage empathy. Look for teachable moments that you can use to help your child consider how others are feeling. Getting kids into the habit of considering others will cut down on the chances that they’ll bully someone else. When your kids are young, look for children’s books that illustrate how badly others feel when they are left out or teased and read them together. You can also use family movie night as a starting point—after all, very few films are free of harsh words, taunts, or nasty behavior (even if they’re PG-rated). Press the pause button and ask your child how he thinks the character who is being treated badly feels. You can also do this as you go about your day (for example, if you see a customer treating a cashier rudely at the grocery store).
Help your children understand “different.” Many children who are bullied are somehow “different”—from a different culture, a different socioeconomic group, handicapped, etc. As much as possible, expose your children to “different” people to promote understanding and friendship. For example, check out a library book about another culture’s religious holidays and read it together. Sign your family up to participate in a walk for autism. The more your kids understand the world around them—and the more they learn that “different” doesn’t mean “less than”—the less likely they’ll be to target other groups.
Teach them to lead selflessly. It’s an understatement to say that our society encourages kids to be leaders. Everything around them practically screams, “Be number one! Climb as high on the ladder as possible! Do everything you can to be successful!” It’s important to teach kids to achieve those goals by earning the respect of others—not by hurting others. Explain to them that yes, you can reach the top of the pecking order by putting others down and intimidating them—but these tactics will ultimately cause you to be unpopular, despised, and alone. Talk about how people who work with others to achieve common goals are ultimately happier and more successful.
Talk about technology. Within the past generation, technology has made bullying much more prolific; after all, taunts no longer have to stop when the school bell rings. Plus, the relative anonymity of an online identity makes kids much bolder than they might be face-to-face. Have a frank discussion with your kids about what is and isn’t appropriate for email, texting, social media, etc. Make sure they understand what’s said online can be just as hurtful, and that it’s much more public and permanent than what’s said in the school hallways. Also, talk about the fact that even passing on a text that originated with someone else makes you guilty of bullying.
Encourage them to spend time with positive people. While no child wants to hear from her parents that she’s hanging out with the wrong crowd, you can encourage her to spend time with people who approach life with positive attitudes and healthy perspectives. Also, pay attention yourself to who your child is hanging out with. If you identify a bad influence, don’t be afraid to limit the time your child spends with him or her. Yes, as a parent you’re the biggest influence on your child’s development, but don’t forget that her friends will also have a huge impact on her behaviors and beliefs.
Take every opportunity to build their confidence. Many bullies pick on others because they themselves have low self-esteem, and putting down others makes them feel more powerful. By helping your child be confident, happy, and fulfilled, you reduce the chances that he will be a bully.
Todd Patkin , author of Finding Happiness : One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In, Twelve Weeks to Finding Happiness: Boot Camp for Building Happier People , and The Sunny Days Secret: A Guide for Finding Happiness, grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.