What Goes Around

When my daughter was in kindergarten she came home from the second day of school upset over an encounter on the playground during recess. She told me another girl made fun of her while she was telling a few kids about crying when it was time to get on the bus. She said the girl called her a “baby”. She knew the girl. In most situations, they were friends so I didn’t make a big deal out of it and nothing more was said. A week later at the school picnic my daughter saw this same girl and they hugged and ran off. Not long later a third girl joined the group. All three hugged and ran toward the slide. It didn’t take long for me to notice a shift in the dynamic. Suddenly two heads were bowed together and a third was shut out. Two figures ran off laughing and the third was left wondering what had just happened. The third was my daughter. She walked toward me with sadness on her face and her shoulders hunched over. It was heartbreaking. The two girls clearly made a point of leaving my daughter out.

On the way home, I asked my daughter what game they had been playing and why the other girls had run off, she just shrugged her shoulders and said she didn’t know. “We were just running around, I guess.”

Two days later her former preschool teacher sent some photos the from previous school year. As we went through the pictures and relived some of those fun moments, like birthday celebrations, we came onto a photo of the little girl who had called my daughter a “baby” and ran away from her at the picnic. My daughter looked at it and then said, “Mom she does damage.” When I asked her to explain she simply said, “Sometimes she isn’t very nice.”

In the book, “Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-proof Girls in the Early Grades”; chapter one highlights three kindergarten girls and their stories of having relationship issues. Researcher Nicki Crick defines relational aggression as “behaviors that harm others through damage to relationships or feelings of acceptance, friendship or group inclusion.” In other words, girls use social avenues for bullying as opposed to more physical means. In the first chapter, it shows how teachers focus their attention on problems that are more physical, while the slow, steady force of emotional bullying practically goes unnoticed. And it is the unnoticed that leaves the lasting scars.

Many of us share similar stories. My own story began when I was in sixth grade. I walked into school one morning to find girls who were my friends the day before crowded in front of my locker, nudging each other, whispering back and forth. Their posture was unwelcoming. The air was different that morning, charged with something that I wasn’t a part of. I wasn’t called into the group. No one looked at me and smiled. My stomach lurched.

I asked if I could get into my locker and suddenly the switch was flipped. One girl said,” Did you hear something? I didn’t hear anything.” And they all laughed and a few boys, who had gathered to see what was happening, laughed. I tried again and no one moved. There was an awkward glance or two, something that said, “I don’t really want to do this but better you than me.” They moved in time to get to home room, leaving me to hurry and feel like I had just been punched. The empty feeling surrounded me and hung like a grey cloud, not just that day but for a long time thereafter.

At first it doesn’t feel like much because you think it won’t last and the next day they will, hopefully, forget about teasing you. But then the next day turns into another day and into another and you realize this could go on for awhile so your stomach knots up when the teacher calls on you because you hear the snickers in the background. You find yourself walking against the wall in the hallway in the hope no one will see you and pick on what you are wearing or worse some physical part of you that you can’t do anything about. It makes you feel desperate. Desperate to fit in, desperate to be liked. Desperate to be someone else. It causes you to recede inside yourself and over analyze every part of you until you can’t find anything positive or beautiful and you decide to not do much of anything because that way at least no one can find fault with you.

In her book “Queen Bees and Wannabes” Rosalind Wiseman describes what she calls the “lunch tray moment”. I remember that moment, standing in the cafeteria with my lunch tray wondering who I could sit with since I was now unwelcome at the table I had been at the previous day. I remember that awful feeling of trying to keep a poker face. Of trying to look like I was choosing a table instead of desperately looking for a friendly face to welcome me. I cannot recall who may have let me sit with them that very first day. I may have just sat at the end of a table and ate in silence but I do remember that one day I was invited to a table and the relief of that moment flooded me with gratitude that has lasted to this day.

That year was pivotal for me . My heart was broken because no one stepped up and helped me. It was broken because I didn’t have a group, It broke my heart because when I saw myself I didn’t just see another sixth grader, I saw a fun house mirror version of myself, all distorted and ugly looking. They made fun of my voice, my hair, and my clothes. I remember my sister buying me a pair of over- alls and refusing to wear them to school because I didn’t want to give the kids any more ammunition then they already had. It was better to fly under the radar then spend another day being pointed at and laughed at.

My own experience is tame compared with what young people face today. Had there been Facebook and Instagram 35 years ago things certainly could have been much worse. Cyber-bullying has been on the rise and has led to an increase in teen suicide. Cyber-bullying is defined as “the use of information technology to repeatedly harm or harass other people in a deliberate manner. According to U.S. Legal Definitions, Cyberbullying could be limited to posting rumors or gossips about a person on the internet bringing about hatred in others’ minds; or it may go to the extent of personally identifying victims and publishing materials severely defaming and humiliating them.”

In our current political climate, it makes me as a parent very wary of a leader who seems to find this behavior acceptable and “modern presidential”. I am awe struck by not only the behavior but by those who defend it. I am also struck by the irony that the First Lady’s own campaign is to strike out against cyber-bullying. In an interview with Anderson Cooper she had stated, “I see now in 21st century, the social media, it’s very damaging for the children. We need to guide them and teach them about social media, because I see a lot of negativity on it, and we need to help them. It has some positive effects as well, because this is the life that we live in now. But has a lot of negativity as well. And I see more and more children being hurt by it . . . A lot of bullying.” I am sure I am not the only person seeing the irony in that statement.

Navigating life as a young person is not easy. Today there are so many avenues for bullies to hit a target and much too easily. Parents need to be aware not only of how their own child is being treated but how they may be treating others. My mother did speak to one of the mother’s during my own experience and the response was a quick and abrasive,” My child would never do that.” Followed by other words meant to put blame on me. My mother pushed it aside and became my champion at home, encouraging me by telling me I was a good kid but also telling me to not act in the same manner. She often said, “what goes around comes around.” She was right. She most often was.

So how do we teach our children to be more kind? How do we teach them to use social media in a positive way and not as something they can hide behind and say things they perhaps would never say to another person if they were standing in front them? How do we change the trajectory of our current social climate?

We put down our phones and tablets and laptops and we talk. We have a dialogue infused with what it means to be part of a community and we use phrases like,” How would you feel if…?” My kids will probably write a book someday about growing up and that will be the title since that has been a staple in our house for years. My oldest told me several weeks ago that he “got into it” on Instagram with a friend of his because they had a differing opinion. This opened a much-needed conversation. We hand our kids phones and let them sign themselves up on social websites and yet there is no manual. Really there should be a class, just like driving a car. It is a big responsibility and yet we do not treat it that way at all. I explained to him simply that social media should only be used to promote something good, post photos he wouldn’t mind his parents and grandparents seeing, and to stay connected with friends in a positive way. He was told he would lose his phone if I found anything negative or any more “getting into it”. He knows I am a woman of my word so he has listened, at least so far.

I saw an interview on CBS news about a young man who had put a quote on Twitter from Mr. Rogers. The quote read, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' I love that. I have tried as a mother to encourage my children to be a good friend. To stick up for someone if someone else is being unkind. I have tried to teach them to treat everyone the way they want to be treated. It isn't always easy and I may not always succeed but hopefully the lessons will eke out of my kids in a slow but steady stream of kindness and compassion as they grow up.

I am not sure how well Mrs. Trump will do in her campaign against cyber-bullying but I think I will stick with Mrs. Rogers and tell my children not only to look for the helpers but to not be afraid to be a helper because what goes around certainly does come back around.

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