Be Your Kid’s Cheerleader, Not Their Bodyguard

As a kid I was what some people might refer to as a “nerd”, and other people might refer to as a “geek”. Some people may have even classified me as a “loser” or a “dork”. It wouldn’t have been way out there to hear someone call me a “dweeb”. I had all the qualities of these many descriptors: I enjoyed school and was good at it, I loved writing and drawing, I only had one or two good friends, I had no sense of fashion or what was “cool” at any given time, I was fairly shy, and I liked lots of things that were considered to be (at the time) things that only nerds liked, like Star Wars, anime, and RPG video games.

I mean, come on...look at those walls! LOOK AT THOSE WALLS!
I mean, come on…look at those walls! LOOK AT THOSE WALLS!

The thing is, when I look back at my childhood I know that I actually had it pretty good. I got along with kids from all social groups, and though I was often teased and tormented I was actually fairly well-liked overall. And yet, if you had asked 10-year-old me, or 12-year-old me, or 15-year-old me, she would have had a grocery list of complaints to make, because that’s the thing about kids: they see things very differently and react explosively. That’s what we have to remember when dealing with young’uns.

For example, when I was young I was an excellent student, but I was dramatically lacking when it came to things that were important to all the other kids. I remember once when I was in the 5th grade, a couple of kids in my class were talking about “Green Day”. I remember wondering why they were talking about Saint Patrick’s Day in the middle of November. I had absolutely no idea that Green Day was a band and I felt like a total loser when I finally figured it out. I was regularly tormented for not knowing about the “important” bands, TV shows, and celebrities.

I was even pretty pathetic when it came to normal “kid” lingo. I read constantly and had a great vocabulary for my age, but when it came to things that kids say to one another I just didn’t get it. Once, I can remember one of the girls in my class told me that one of the boys in my class thought I was a “fox”. I had absolutely no idea what that meant. I didn’t know whether to be amused or upset. The boy in question was the kind of guy who was friendly enough but also a bit of a torment, so I didn’t know if being a “fox” was a good thing or if he was teasing me. In this particular case my ignorance showed clear through; the girl actually ended up asking me if I knew what a “fox” was because she could see the twitchy confusion on my face. I felt like a complete idiot as I tried to convince her that I did, even though I didn’t. And then even after I was clear on the definition, I didn’t know if the boy was being serious or mean, because I was not the kind of girl that boys liked and I knew it.

These kinds of things were exacerbated by the “normal” kid’s ability to be annoyingly ignorant toward the “nerdy” kid. When I would draw, for instance, I tended to draw in an anime style, and the result was a constant barrage of, “Oooh, is that Sailor Moon?” which is significantly more annoying than it sounds. In this vein everything I did or said was assumed to be related to Sailor Moon or Star Wars, because if a kid happens to like these kinds of things every other kid in the world will assume that that’s all there is to that kid. For a large chuck of my life I was designated to be the “kid who likes Star Wars”, and as far as some were concerned that was my only defining feature.

As I’ve mentioned before, these kinds of things, though they seem meaningless to an adult, are a huge deal to kids. Kids are emotional. Kids are quick to temper. Kids are cruel to each other. Kids are stupid.

The reason I mention all of this is because when you have a bunch of little things slowly building up and niggling at a kid’s mind, eventually it will come to a head and there will be an outburst of some kind. For me, the eventual outburst was a good thing. You see, my two best friends and I were picked on fairly regularly in junior high school. One of those two friends was the biggest target simply because she was the quietest and therefore the easiest (see previous paragraph about kids being cruel). One day in gym class we were going to be playing badminton, and while our teacher was distracted by showing one of the kids the proper swing, some of the “popular” kids were amusing themselves by hitting birdies at my friend. It was the kind of thing that she had endured before, and normally did so by gritting her teeth and trying to ignore them. On this day, however, she cracked, and on the tenth or eleventh birdie to the back of the head she twirled around and chucked her racket at the kids as hard as she could. Her reaction was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the other friend and I. Up until that point we had always been calm, quiet, and soft-spoken, but at that moment we snapped. I don’t even remember half of what either of us said. I do remember that there was an incredible amount of profanity involved, and that I ended up with my finger right in the face of one particular girl who looked, in that moment, like she was absolutely terrified that I was going to beat her face in. And the thing is, I actually may have, if our teacher hadn’t run over at that moment, grabbed my friends and I, and dragged us off to her office. I don’t remember much of that talk either, except for the fact that I was crying while we were trying to defend ourselves and I was so mad that I couldn’t stop.

We three ended up getting sent home for lunch early that day. At my grandmother’s house I explained to my mother and grandmother what had happened and that my two friends had already said that they weren’t going back to school that afternoon. After listening carefully my mother told me that I could stay home too if I wanted, but that she strongly suggested I return for the afternoon classes. She told me that not showing up would just show those kids that they’d won in the end. I hated that so much, you have no idea, but I returned to school that afternoon and spent the entire rest of the day sitting alone, knowing that the entire class was watching me, waiting to see if I’d snap again. Those three or so hours were some of the hardest I’d ever experienced. It was all I could do not to burst into tears every time I saw someone staring at me.

But as I said, in the end, the outburst that my friends and I had turned out to be a good thing for us. No one messed with us after that, and in honesty we seemed to gain quite a bit of respect. Life became a hell of a lot easier from there on out. And I truly believe that those “popular” kids learned something that day…in fact, one of them recently informed me that she’d felt extremely bad about that incident and apologized profusely for being a jerk.

Here’s the thing though…that incident could have gone a hell of a lot differently. For one thing, I could have forgone the screaming and cursing and gone right to bashing a girl’s face in. We could have done nothing at all and instead self-medicated in secret with drugs or self-harm. My friends and I could have let everything build and build and build until we ended up with major depression or anxiety or any other number of things. We could have wound up in a very different place. One of us could have even resorted to suicide. I would never in a million years have said that any of us were ever capable of that, but people often say that of kids who do end up taking the final plunge.

Now, these days we pay a lot of attention to bullying, especially it’s cyber-counterpart. And that’s good, for sure. We definitely don’t want to ignore the problem. But if you want to know my honest opinion, I think we spend way too much time focusing on the cause and not enough time focusing on the effects. Sure, it would be great if we could stop bullying all together and save all our kids from having to deal with that kind of mental, emotional, and sometimes even physical anguish, but we can’t. Not really. We can’t be on top of our kids every hour of every day, and no matter what we do or say to bullies they will continue to do what they do because that’s just the way they are. To reiterate: kids are cruel. They will always be cruel. We as parents and teachers and concerned adults can do what we can, but  some bullies will always work around the systems and thus some kids will always be bullied. Therefore, I suggest focusing more on the effects. Look for the signs. Keep your eyes open for changes in the way your kid acts. Be vigilant, but don’t hover, because kids recognize that kind of thing and they hate it. Don’t be forceful and demanding, but talk to your kids, let them know that they can talk to you. Don’t overreact. Kids won’t tell you that they’re being bullied if they think you’re going to go stomping over to the bully’s house to yell at their parents (hint: no matter how much you think it’s a good idea, that kind of thing results in MORE BULLYING). Your kids want you on their side, but they want you on their side on their terms. Your kids don’t always need you to fix the problem: sometimes they just need you to acknowledge the problem and let them know that you have faith in them to deal with it. Like my mother listened to my story about my breakdown and encouraged me to return to school to show the bullies that they hadn’t won, sometimes all your kid really needs is to know that you believe in their ability to face their own problems head-on.

Being a kid is rarely easy, and lots of horrible things have happened as a result of that, but our kids don’t need us to be their bodyguards; they need us to be their cheerleaders.

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