Monday, October 22, 2012

Tightropes and Wonder

October is Bullying Prevention Awareness Month here in the US, and I’ve been trying for weeks now to think of the right way to share our family’s story from the past year. Blogging about real children is a tightrope walk—you never want to share anything too painful or too raw, or anything that your child feels is too personal. But you do want to share those universal moments that might resonate with other parents and kids who are struggling. Because sometimes those shared moments weave together to form a net that catches people when they are falling, helping them feel a little less alone in the void. So here goes the tightrope walk (my son gets the final edit).
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

A little over a year ago, our family moved to a small town just south of the suburb where we had lived for all of my 12-year-old son’s life. We had lots of good reasons for moving, and both kids were ready for the adventure of a new beginning. Our older son already knew a handful of kids at his new school through sports, and he quickly acclimated to his changed environment.

Our younger son—who is delightfully quirky and enthusiastically intellectual—found himself in a country grade school where he knew no one, surrounded by kids who were nothing like him. He delighted in reading. They delighted in kicking him in the shins under his desk when he pulled out a book. He loved to grapple with difficult math problems. They loved to sneer and mock him for loving what they hated. He had a malformed, smaller left hand, and he was surrounded by kids who refused to tolerate differences.

Day by day, they peeled away his confidence and his well-being and his sense of self. They carved him with whispered taunts, cutting away at how he saw himself, until all that was left was a shell of the boy he had been. Tears. Panic. Daily heartache. And that was before the day last spring when he was attacked on the playground. A single punch to the mouth left him bleeding and stitched and swollen, unable to eat solid food for over a week. The classroom teacher truly ached for him and tried to help, but she and I agreed that the best solution for my son was to get away from there, to start over in a school with kids more like him.

We found our silver lining in a new school this year in a district not far from here—another year of being the new kid, but with much different results. My son has found his tribe. When he brings up questions about wormholes and time travel in science class, the other students mull over and discuss his ideas, never even considering that the concepts might be unusual. He passes notes with a friend coded via the Periodic Table. He jokes with his pals about his “lucky hand" and shares the hallways with a stellar athlete who has no hand at all. He has friends. He is happy. We are happy.

But what happens to those kids who came so close to destroying him last year? How do they grow past their brutish tendencies when the people who are different from them are chased away? How do they learn to be anything more than what they are? What will they do in the larger world when they are faced with people who are disabled, or gay, or culturally different from them? The thought makes me almost unbearably sad.

Yesterday afternoon, I read a delightful book that could be part of the solution. Wonder, by R.J. Palacio is an exceptionally written middle-grade novel that captures the pain of bullying so poignantly, so beautifully, that the story and its message resonate long after the last page is turned. If I were still teaching (grades 4-6), I would buy a class set of this novel, and we would spend the month of October reading and discussing it to lay a foundation for mutual understanding and to facilitate a culture of kindness. Even if you don’t routinely read children’s books just for the joy of experiencing the quality literature being produced in that category today, you should make an exception for this book. But have tissues handy. Really.

            “… in the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible. If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary—the world really would be a better place.”
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

Bullying is not just an October problem. It’s an everyday, everywhere problem that can only be solved when people consciously remove themselves from the neutral bystander camp and become protectors of the least of us. This month, and every day of every single other month, do what you can in your world to foster mutual understanding and compassion.

Please leave your ideas and comments below.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Political Powwow

Sorry I’ve been gone so long! I was going to spend this re-emergent blog talking about bullying and how it can affect a whole family to the point where other activities (like blogging) become just too much—and I will—but there’s something I’d like to discuss first. We parents need to have a little powwow about politics.

I’m not going to try to change anyone’s mind about what they believe or whom they admire or how they’re going to vote. Frankly, I’ve met very few people who ever changed their mind after a rousing debate with a proponent from the “other side.” My concern, parent to parent, is about what we’re teaching our kids about how to process political disagreement and how to respond to people whose beliefs are different from theirs.

I’m not really even advocating open-mindedness, to be honest. (I know that sounds odd, but hear me out.) While we do tend to think of open-mindedness as a positive trait, my own mind—while progressive—is actually pretty rigid. My beliefs about human rights and gay marriage and global warming and foreign wars are evolving, certainly, but they are set enough that I can’t honestly say I’d be open to changing my mind about them after hearing from someone who believes differently. What is open, though, is my heart. I believe that most people in the world, regardless of their politics, want many of the same basic things, and that we can agree to be gentle in our disagreements about the details. Passive? No. Yielding in our beliefs? No. But respectful? I think we can do that.

This week, a teenage girl from Ohio found herself in a media whirlwind after she tweeted, “Someone needs to assassinate Obama… like ASAP”—followed by a hashtag dripping with expletives. That impulsively hateful declaration resulted in consequences the young lady probably never even remotely considered. She is being investigated by the Secret Service and may face federal charges for threatening the president. Even though she is still a couple of years shy of being old enough to vote, her momentary lapse in judgment was actually a pretty big deal. I wonder what lesson she will take away from the experience. Will her parents sit with her and talk about how to appropriately share political frustration? Will the family discuss limits to protected speech and positive ways to channel a desire for change in the world? Or will they hold the investigation as further proof that their disdain for the current administration is well founded? Will they deepen the hatred that gave rise to this unfortunate public misstep, or will they look inward for places to begin making changes?

It’s not surprising when impressionable young people spew vitriolic insults when that is what they are fed—by their parents, by the media, and by their own political representatives. Do we, as parents, want to raise a generation of children who believe the only effective way to argue is to spew insults and eviscerate the other side? Facebook and Twitter are full of political venom these days, and not just from hotheaded teens. It’s all about Us versus Them and how awful The Other Guy is, leaving us needing to remind ourselves that The Other Guy is actually a dear friend or colleague or former classmate.

What can we do to re-set the tone of the public discourse? How can we, as parents and senior members of the society, best guide our children to be respectful and involved citizens? What do you think? Please add your (respectful) comments below.

(When we’ve got the kids on the right track, maybe some of us could get started on the grown-ups.)

P.S. Full disclosure here: I’m not claiming perfection on keeping the tone positive. The last time I did door-to-door canvassing for a presidential candidate, my then four-year-old son walked to the door with me and said in his sweet little voice at the door, “[your guy] sucks!” Respect is an ongoing life lesson.