By Allison Wedell Schumacher
Believe me, I know the feeling: Your child looks up at you with that sweet, tear-stained face, chin wavering, and tells you she’s been bullied at school. And for a moment there—just a moment—you see red. You have visions of marching over to that child’s house and giving the parents what-for. How DARE they raise a child who would bully anyone else! What were they thinking? Justice must be served!
But I’m here to tell you: “Stand down, tiger-parent.”
It’s great that you are so firmly in your kiddo’s corner, but immediately confronting the parents of the child who bullied is at best ineffective and at worst disastrous. It can be frustrating and time consuming, but the best way to handle bullying is through your child’s school.
Heidi George should know. She has been the principal at Four Seasons A+ in St. Paul, Minnesota, for four years now—and before that, she was a school counselor for seven. As the mother of four children, she is also intimately familiar with the other side of the coin.
I asked her how she handles it when parents come to her loaded for bear and ready to take on another parent over a bullying incident. When that happens, says Ms. George, “My job is to listen and let their frustrations and voice be heard.” Once parents have had a chance to tell her their perspective on the situation, Ms. George starts talking.
“I let them know that it is my job to keep all kids safe. It is my job to ensure that students have a welcoming and safe environment to learn. I let parents know that I will investigate the situation and speak with their child, as well as the other child.” After all, many parents want to confront other parents because they think the school will not deal with the bullying incident properly (or at all), so Ms. George makes it a point to be very specific about what will happen.
“As a parent of four kids, I completely can understand and empathize with families regarding how their children are treated,” Ms. George explains. “I make sure that families know that as a mother, I hear you. As a principal, I hear you.” Then she provides options. She relies on her sixteen years as an educator to get a read on the families involved. Ms. George has discovered that she can tell whether getting everyone together in the same room to discuss the situation will help or hurt, and she advises accordingly.
“If the parents are still really upset, it would not be appropriate to have the families come together,” says Ms. George. “But if both parties are willing to come to the table to collaborate on how we are raising our children, it can be extremely powerful.”
Just as the decision to have such a meeting must be very intentional, so must the way in which the meeting is conducted. Ms. George warns that it “should happen in a neutral environment and be facilitated by a third party.”
The advantage to this approach is twofold: First, it helps families develop a stronger bond with the school: “As we talk through this, a trusting relationship is built, and the most important thing is the follow through.” When families see that something is truly being done about the situation, they’re much less likely to want to handle it themselves.
The second advantage to getting families into a room together to discuss bullying is what the students learn from it. “It is very powerful to have children watch and learn from their families that it takes a village to raise kids. It takes the partnership from both families to make it work for their students,” says Ms. George.
Again, this approach isn’t for everyone and doesn’t fit every bullying incident. But the next time you’re compelled to go all tiger-parent about a bullying incident, be sure to bring the school into it instead. Your assertive advocacy on your child’s behalf—not to mention the teamwork between you, the other family, and the school—can benefit everyone involved.
Allison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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