MyBrownBaby’s been on a mission in 2014 to introduce our readers to great content from sites we love, and we’re super proud to announce a partnership with Dr. Stacey Patton’s Spare the Kids, a website whose mission is to provide Black parents, families and communities with a full range of alternatives to corporal punishment while reducing the number of children that end up in America’s child welfare and juvenile justice systems. On Spare the Kids, “Mother Wit” answers parents’ tough discipline questions with the sound, solid, witty advice that’ll help them raise their children, without raising their hands. We hope that you’ll find use in Mother Wit’s advice, and invite you to submit your parenting questions here.
Dear Mother Wit,
I found out recently that a kid on my son’s bus has been bullying him. It started with him calling my son names, and then the bully tripped my boy a couple times while he was making his way to his seat, and last week, he punched him so hard my kid cried. Now, I know the bully was wrong, but I’m not raising any punks, either. The way I see it, he needs to smack fire out of that bully’s mouth if he wants the madness to stop, and if he doesn’t get it done, he’ll have to answer to me. But my girlfriend thinks I should go up to the school and talk to the principal. Who’s right? — Bullied’s Mom
Dear Bullied’s Mom,
I get it. The old school was raised to believe that punching a bully dead in the mouth will show him that you’re not weak, putting an end to all the foolishness. In theory, winning that fight should make your son stand up a little straighter, feel a little stronger and get on that bus with a little less fear, all while putting his bully on notice: don’t start none, won’t be none.
There’s something to be said for this. Our kids are going to face adversity throughout their lives. When they’re young, it may be in the form of bullying, fighting, electronic aggression and dating violence or may involve weapons or gang violence. And when they’re older, bullies will be more clever; people will use their position and power to force them to do things they don’t want to do or make them feel bad about themselves. So there is some value to preparing our kids to fight, not flee, these battles.
But telling your kid to “just hit him back” doesn’t necessarily work in the real world, not today. These days, hitting another kid, no matter if the other kid started it, can get your son into a bunch of trouble, not just with his bully, but also with school administrators who are practicing what they call “zero tolerance” policies. That means that they don’t care who started what: if you swing on someone, you’re in trouble. Big trouble. Your telling your son to defend himself by fighting back could land him in detention, suspension or worse: kicked out of school or arrested by police officers, who are being used more and more in schools in communities of color to criminalize our kids, rather than to keep them safe. This is especially true for Black boys. You don’t want that for your son.
More importantly, your son doesn’t need your fist. He needs you. One of the messages we send to our kids when we make them take the bullying, handle the problem all on their own or face physical punishment from you for “taking the bullying” is that we don’t necessarily have their back—that if they snitch they’re being weak and we’ll be more upset by this than we will with the actions of the bully that hurt them. He’s already being beaten up by the bus bully, an experience that’s really hard for kids to handle as it is. He doesn’t need you to beat on him, too. What your son needs from his mother, the person who loves him more than anyone else in this world, is your love, support and grown-up help. Here’s what you do:
1. Tell your son that it is not his fault that he is being picked on and hit by the other kid. Explain to him that kids who bully other kids—whether with their fists, their words or on social media—are wrong for doing it, and that they usually lash out at other kids because something is wrong with them. Maybe he’s getting in trouble at school, or he’s got problems at home with abusive parents or siblings. Whatever the bully’s problem is, it’s making him lash out in destructive ways, and your son, for whatever twisted reason, is his target. Tell your son that there is nothing wrong with him; there is something wrong with the bully.
2. Recognize that hitting your son for not hitting another kid sends him the message that hitting is not only right, but also a requirement for your love and respect. Know this: Hitting. Is. Not. Okay. And threatening to hit your son for refusing to hit another human being makes him feel even more vulnerable and powerless. Right now, your son is feeling fearful, frozen and powerless, and he needs to be able to count on you to help him deal with those emotions, not pile on to them. Instead of hitting him and asking him to be violent, hug him and let him know that he can count on you to be the grown-up in this situation and do something to stop this mess.
3. Go to the school and talk to the principal about the bully’s behavior. They are the most qualified to deal with bullies and will handle it, but only if they know what is going on. It is on them, the experts, to put a stop to the hitting and harassment, and their responsibility, too, to talk to the bully, find out why he’s been lashing out at his fellow students, punish him for his actions and put together a plan for correcting his behavior
4. Teach your child how to defend himself. No, I don’t mean teach him how to throw an uppercut like Mike Tyson. I mean teach him how to say out loud, “Leave me alone,” or “Stop it,” or, “That’s not funny,” and then walk away from the bully without engaging him further. Teach your son, too, that there is safety in numbers: walk with friends and the bully is less likely to start some stuff because he only wants to pick on one kid, not five. It’s okay, too, to teach your son some moves designed to protect himself from the bully’s physical attacks. Get him into a karate or Tae Kwan Do class, where he can be taught how to guard himself from the blows of others, and, more importantly, gain confidence in his own strength. This will go a long way in helping your kid be less fearful because he’ll know he can handle himself.
These things give your son the balance he needs to fight against his bully the right way. There’s nothing wrong with updating our responses to be a little bit more sensitive to the way that our children think and react to danger and threat. We need to let our kids know that we’re stepping in on their behalf to send the message that people care about them and will protect them, no matter what. Some kids are going to be able to suck it up and face the bully down. Others are going to be afraid and do damage to themselves instead. It’s on us to give them a third option to trust that their parents, the grown-ups in charge, will do something about it, and hold these schools and their administrators and the parents of the bullies accountable for not keeping kids safe from unbearable abuse.
Now go hug your baby and tell him you got his back!
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This post originally appeared on SPARE THE KIDS. Reprinted with permission.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.