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“Kids will be kids.”

Doesn’t this unfortunate cliché say more about us than it does them? Is it really the overwhelmingly simply explanation for their behaviour that we pretend it is? Is it productive or even fair to surrender and place blame on those we have the responsibility and privilege to mentor and shape and teach? Isn’t surrender precisely the function of the statement, “kids will be kids”?

What are the consequences for our apathy and refusal to act on behalf of our precious kids?

Last night, I sat at my 4-year-old daughter’s bedside, and as I watched her sleep, I wondered . . . what ‘names’ will my beautiful daughter hear some day that threaten to undermine the love and encouragement I am determined to provide her with daily? What psychological torment will she endure at the hands of ‘kids being kids’? At the moment, she is ecstatic beyond comprehension about attending junior kindergarten next fall, but at what point will her enthusiasm be crushed by the selfish and the cruel? Is it necessary that this should happen at all?

bully_project_ver2_xlgAdmittedly, my ruminations were influenced substantially by the recent documentary, “Bully”, which I viewed immediately prior to this bedside lament. I am thankful for but disturbed to my very core by the content of this powerful film, and I’m certain this was the filmmaker’s purpose for pursuing his subject in such a frank and visceral way. The experiences of Alex, Ja’Maya, and Kelby are potent and affecting not only because it is terrible to witness the cruelty they must face at such young ages, but because these incidents are all too common and have troublesome and far-reaching consequences. To hear a child who weathers physical and verbal assaults on a daily basis say, “I’m starting to think I don’t feel anything any more,” is almost too much to bear!

It is true that bullying is hardly a new phenomenon, but incidences of teens and pre-teens committing suicide due to bullying are becoming far too common. Playground conflicts may have existed since the advent of playgrounds, but bullying via electronic means (a.k.a. cyber-bullying) ensures that no place–not even a loving home–is a safe haven for a bullied child! I will concede that children engaging in ridicule and violence directed at other children likely do not comprehend or intend the outcomes that typically result from the onslaught of abuse they dish out, but their intentions are really beside the point. Victimization of any kind among our children and teens requires a swift response if we are to possibly spare the victim and reform the perpetrator.

I am encouraged to see a school board (one of many) in our own province taking such a stand against bullying in all its forms. Following the arrest of eight Ontario girls for ‘criminal harassment’ at a highschool in London, Ontario, last fall, director of education for the Thames Valley District School Board, Bill Tucker, had this to say:

If we can change behaviours about drinking and driving, if we change behaviours and attitudes around smoking, why can we not change behaviours and attitudes around bullying.

Reformed attitudes and behaviours are a valiant pursuit, and I applaud any efforts in our schools to pursue this end. I am thrilled that the aforementioned documentary on the subject fought for and finally received a PG-13 rating, allowing it to be viewed in many schools where these dialogues must continue. The advantage that Tucker and his school board had in the incident last fall was that the bullying was reported (if not by the victim, by others who were privy to it). The sad truth is that in many of the worst incidences, victims as young as four or five years old suffer in silence.

I was shocked to learn, after viewing the film and relaying some of its most startling elements to my wife, that three of our closest friends are confronting serious bullying situations with their children at this very moment. We are fortunate that my wife is able to stay home with our girls for the time-being, and she benefits greatly from the interactions she enjoys with other young mothers like herself. She recently heard of beatings on the bus endured by a kindergarten-aged boy (inflicted by 3rd and 4th graders), among other stories of abuse and torture routinely faced by little ones who call me ‘Uncle Paul’. One mother couldn’t understand why a son who recently displayed the excitement toward all things school-related (akin to that currently expressed by my daughter) suddenly broke down crying as she urged him toward the bus each morning. It was months later that she learned that her beloved son’s cries were the result of genuine fear for his safety. I shutter to think what would cause greater pain: the fact that such abuse was occurring, or that as a parent, we would fail to recognize it.

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My heart breaks with the parents in Lee Hirsch’s film who have lost children to suicide, or must move their families and their belongings to ensure safety and security for a daughter who has identified as gay. As one woman in the film explains, we spend all of our time with these ‘little people’ when they are young, then send them off to be educated and soon discover that we “never really know them” or “know what’s happening to them”. It’s utterly terrifying to consider that regardless of the relationship we establish with our children early on, they simply will not communicate everything that we need to know to ensure that they remain safe. As a protective father with somewhat of a type-A personality, I struggle to accept this reality.

I have no desire to launch an indictment against our school system, or lob accusations at our youngsters regarding their poorer attitudes/behaviour when compared with previous generations. I absolutely love technology, and aim to raise children who respect its power and benefits, and make good choices about when and how it should be employed. Action plans and methodologies for addressing a serious problem plaguing our schools and our society today have certainly been better-researched and better-enunciated elsewhere. Having said all of that, of one thing I am sure:

‘Kids’ are the way they are because we permit, or worse, model, the destructive behaviours they now exhibit! It is we (parents/adults) who must change our ways first!

I will start right now by speaking and breathing love into my children’s lives as consistently and frequently as I am able. I will treat them with respect, kindness, and compassion so regularly that when they engage others, they will know no other way of relating to them but this example that their mother and I have provided.

I will tirelessly communicate their uniqueness and their value as individuals and members of our family, and I will continue to do so through their adolescence when my impressions and opinions will inevitably mean less than those of their peers.

I will lovingly correct them when I see hostility, anger, or frustration expressed outwardly in harmful, abusive ways. I will encourage them to adopt healthy methods of conflict resolution, and to uncover the pain/hurt that so often fuels attacks directed at family members, friends, and acquaintances.

I will do everything in my power to make damn sure that your kid is not bullied by one of mine! It is my responsibility first and foremost to teach them and to hold them accountable, and I won’t let you down!

Will you do the same? Let’s not wait on our education system or our criminal justice system to react and intervene. Let’s attack the problem at its root, where we have a shred of control, and let’s do it by adjusting our own attitudes and behaviours first and passing them on intentionally to the next generation!

The following TED Talk impacted my thinking today as I sat down to write this post. I hope that it prompts action in you. Please share it with others.

I will love myself despite the ease with which I lean toward the opposite.” – Shane Koyczan, Canadian Poet

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