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Grandma’s View: Parents need to watch for when teasing becomes bullying

About 50 years ago, I was driving down a side street and saw a group of boys – they looked to be about 11 – surrounding a small boy on the ground. I hit the brakes, got out of the car, and in high dander, shouted, “What do you think you’re doing?”

The bigger boy who was kneeling beside the little boy looked at me in surprise and said, “I’m tying my little brother’s shoe lace.”

I murmured something like “Good for you” and slunk back to my car, leaving a group of boys behind who thought that I was one crazy, nosy lady.

The moral of the story could be, “Mind your own business,” but even back then we were getting attuned to the bullying in our schools and communities. Adults were aligned into two groups. One group said, “Leave kids alone and let them work it out themselves. After all, boys will be boys and they just have to learn to take it.” The second group said, “There’s never an excuse for bigger, tougher boys making life miserable for more vulnerable boys.”

Notice that the discussions were relegated to boys. We hadn’t yet tuned in to the cruelty of emotional abuse most often associated with girls. And, back then, there was no social media which makes it easier for perpetrators to hide behind. The boy-on-boy bullying was visible only to those who cared to look.

Parents today are very aware. I watched my daughter subtly protect her five-year-old when he was carefully printing his name on Valentine’s cards to take to school a few months ago. On the cards for boys and girls he really liked, he added XXXOOO. His mother gently suggested that boys didn’t often hug and kiss other boys – or girls – so maybe he should just print his name on all the cards.

This minor incident is just another example of today’s parents being so tuned in to potential problems that range from humiliation to the physical. But so is the entire population, according to new research commissioned by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada:

  • 95 percent of adults now believe people have a responsibility to take action to reduce bullying.
  • 89 percent think bullies pose a serious threat to the long-term well-being of children and teenagers.
  • 87 percent agree that action to reduce bullying strengthens communities over time.
  • 85 percent feel that assigning bullies with a volunteer mentor is an effective way to reduce bullying.

This same research would, I suspect, have yielded different results 50 years ago. It isn’t enough to just passively agree that there is a problem. Changes in the civilizing of human behaviour can only happen when adults set an example by behaving and using language in a civil, inclusive way.

I recognize that kids have to learn to take teasing with grace and even humour (life is so much easier for those who know how to laugh at themselves!) but we have to agree at what point teasing tips over into abuse. And then take action.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, July 2012.

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