by Erin Frankel, Free Spirit author of the Weird series
I recently overheard a conversation at a local playground. A mother asked another mother how her daughter was doing at school. Apparently, the daughter was being bullied by a group of “mean girls.”
“She needs to smarten up,” the second mother replied. “The mean girls are picking on another girl now and my daughter feels bad for her.”
The first mother seemed as confused as I was. Why would feeling empathy for someone else be a bad thing? “So, what’s the problem?” she asked.
“The problem is, it isn’t her problem. And instead of minding her own business, she gets involved.”
The daughter ran up to her mother. I felt the urge to slide over to the end of my bench and share a few things I had learned about bullying, starting with a story from my childhood.
It was third grade and I hated recess. I didn’t like the cruel game that kids had taken to playing lately. Students would tag this one girl, announce that they had her “germs,” and then give them away by tagging another student. A jungle gym was “base” where kids were safe from the germs, but as I stood watching, stomach churning—nothing felt safe at all. I didn’t participate in the game, but I was involved and I knew it. By doing nothing, I was doing something.
Bullying is everyone’s business. The feelings of fear and helplessness that I felt on the playground are common feelings experienced by children who witness bullying. In fact, it has a name: cognitive dissonance. This is when our actions don’t reflect what our hearts and heads are telling us is the right thing to do. My churning stomach was my body’s response to the stress of witnessing bullying and doing nothing about it. It didn’t take long for the guilt that I felt to become greater than the fears that I had about getting involved. Minding my own business was no longer an option.
I saw the girl sitting by herself on the playground. I told my friend that I was going to talk to the girl and asked if she wanted to join me. My friend was concerned. “But if they see you talking to her, what will they think about you?”
Let others think what they may. Do what feels right. It’s how you think about yourself—not what others think of you—that gives you the courage to stand up for what you believe in. There are safe ways to stand up for someone who is being bullied that don’t involve confrontation. You can tell a caring adult, reach out to the target in friendship, distract the bully, and encourage others to be witnesses as well.
I walked over to the girl with my friend . . . Wait. Stop there.
There are others who feel just like you. Find those people. It is easier to be brave with a friend by your side. Most students feel uncomfortable watching someone else being bullied and want to find a way to make it stop. Someone has to make the first move, and when that happens, others are likely to follow.
My friend and I sat down next to the girl. I made it quick. I said, “It isn’t your fault that they treat you that way. Don’t listen to what they say.” My words felt like “big people” words. I wondered where all the big people were. How was it that no one had noticed what was happening on the playground day after day? Why didn’t I see telling a “big person” at school as an option?
Bullying doesn’t just work itself out. Bullying is a complex social issue, one that even some of the smartest, most intuitive adults have a hard time figuring out . . . so why would we expect children to figure it out on their own? I suspect that I didn’t tell an adult at school for the same reasons that so many children continue to keep quiet. Maybe I was afraid of making things worse or being called a tattletale. Maybe I sensed that these things just went on and that we kids would have to work them out on our own. Maybe I didn’t want to bother the teachers, or worse yet, maybe I had reached the conclusion of “why bother?”
I don’t remember many details about what the girl said back to me. She was mostly quiet and looked down at the ground. But I remember feeling that I had done something brave, something right. And I hoped my words would stay with her. When the bell rang to line up for class, a girl walked up to me and got in my face. “Why did you talk to that girl?” I looked her straight in the eyes. “Because I wanted to.”
I now know that it wasn’t just because I wanted to—it was because I could. Most children would like to stand up for what is right, but they don’t have the tools and support to do so. I was fortunate. Someone had given me the tools to express myself and set an example about the importance of getting involved. That someone was my mother. And someone had my back. That someone was my friend.
Children are listening. If we want to raise a generation of children who stand up for others, who act on churning stomachs, then we must lead by example. We must “smarten up” and educate ourselves about best practices when it comes to bullying prevention. We must make it our business to get involved so that children never reach the conclusion of “why bother?” We must catch that cruel game on the playground before it spreads like wildfire and make it safe for children to butt in rather than butt out. We must try “What’s the matter?” rather than “It doesn’t matter.” Surely we can find ways to help children do what their guts tell them is right.
The game eventually stopped at recess, but it never should have happened in the first place. It was just one small playground in a small town . . . but isn’t that what the world is made of? My small act of courage made a difference. All acts of courage do.
Get involved! Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
My commitment this month, in honor of National Bullying Prevention month, is to slide over and share my story at my small playground in my small town or wherever I see injustice taking place. Want to join me?
Erin Frankel has an M.A. in English education and is passionate about teaching and writing. She taught ESL in Alabama before her move to Madrid, Spain, with her husband and three daughters. Erin knows firsthand what it feels like to be bullied, and she hopes her stories will help bring smiles back to children who have been involved in bullying.
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.