“Mom, Dave is always bothering me.”
Says my first grader on the 2nd week of school. Curious (and getting quite nervous), I asked him what exactly his classmate was doing to him. “He keeps on poking me, stepping on my foot, and dropping my pencils on the floor.” Not wanting to go all “The Crucible” in my son’s classroom, I tried to probe some more on what Dave (not his real name) did. “Well, when we’re waiting in line, sometimes he tickles me, and that makes me laugh.”
With a sigh of relief, I put my Puritan bonnet back in the closet.
Bullying in schools has existed across all generations and all cultures, but it is only recently that more attention is being given to fight against it. With bullying methods, and the victims’ reactions to bullying, becoming more violent and devastating, even the seemingly harmless forms of harassment need to be nipped at the bud. It is important to empower the child to tell someone of authority about the bullying, someone who can step in and do something about it.
But what if that doesn’t work?
Months ago, a friend was telling us that her son came to her one day, telling her that his playmate punched him (they were about 3 or 4 years old). Her response, to my surprise, didn’t surprise anyone else. “Did you punch him back? Punch him back.”
We all are Catholic parents, and have vowed before God and His people to “accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and His Church.” But when it comes to teaching them about bullying, we want them to be able to protect themselves, to appear strong enough (maybe even scary enough) so as not to get pushed around.
They can learn about “loving thy neighbor” and “praying for those who persecute you” when they get older. Right now, they need to defend themselves, because no one gets away with hurting my child.
What do we teach our children? That bullying is wrong and should not be tolerated. It is an attack on the dignity of a human being, of a child of God. But at the very moment of bullying, when our child is pushed, laughed at, roughly handled, unfairly teased, what do we teach them to do? How would we want them to react?
Hopefully, with love. With forgiveness.
No doubt, this is the harder route. If we wanted the bullying to stop immediately, we would teach our kids to fight back. “That’ll teach ’em!” But when will retaliation stop being the norm, when will violence no longer be okay? Do we just sit them down at one point, maybe when they’re old enough to vote or drink, and explain to them how Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, to forgive seventy times seven times, to be meek and humble of heart?
They never said living the Gospel was going to be easy. Teaching it to our kids? Infinitely harder (and more painful).
Instead of watching movies about the underdog getting even (if you think about it, this storyline is a dime a dozen), why not talk about how Blessed John Paul II forgave the man who tried to assassinate him, and visited him in prison (even heard his confession!)? Or about Joseph Cardinal Bernardin* who, after being falsely accused of sexual abuse (with corresponding national news coverage), came to meet with his accuser, spoke with him, counseled him, celebrated mass with him, and even gave him an inscribed Bible as gift? Perhaps, instead of glorifying the satisfaction of revenge, we aspire for the “lightness of spirit that…grace brings to one’s life,” as Cardinal Bernardin so eloquently put it.
Let us teach our kids to tell us if someone is “bothering” them. But let us also teach them to hate the sin, never the sinner.
*I read Cardinal Bernardin’s book, The Gift of Peace, a couple of years ago and was deeply moved by his story. I’m sure you will be, too.