Figurines playing - How not to raise a bully

How to Not Raise a Bully

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This is a followup post to “Give Your Kids the Skills to Deal with Bullies

By Angela Bergman

If I asked you to give me some tips on how to raise a mean kid, I’m guessing you’d probably have the following two reactions:

First, you’d ask me why in the world I’d want to know how to raise a mean kid. I know, I know. Bear with me for a second. Then again, maybe you’d be totally offended because I asked you this question.

Then you’d probably tell me that mean kids come from dysfunctional or abusive homes. You’d tell me that mean kids usually don’t have any good role models and perhaps they had been abused, neglected, or bullied themselves.

In theory, I’d agree with you on both points, just to be clear.

But, speaking to the second point now, is this always the case? Are mean kids, bullies, and jerks always the products of dysfunctional homes?

I thought about the kids who bullied my son when he was 4-5 years old. I knew the families and I knew their child’s misbehavior wasn’t the result of abuse or neglect. In fact, I considered these parents to be “good.” That kind of threw that theory out the window and in doing so, I was left with my own doubts.

Am I Raising a Bully?

I’ve since questioned my own parenting abilities. I mean, I do my best to raise my children not to be mean—I know you do too. But when it comes down to it, there are no guarantees that our kids won’t end up being a jerk in someone else’s life.

So what am I teaching my kids? How am I doing my part to reduce the risk they’ll end up bullying someone else?

One of my biggest goals as a parent is to raise a human being who will not only avoid being the instigator, but also refuses to join in while others tease, torture, or humiliate a classmate.

I want to know that my children will not only walk away from mean people rather than retaliating, but I also want them to stand up for the underdog instead of leaving them to fend for themselves.

My goal is more than raising my children to not be mean. I want to raise them to be people with tender hearts who can’t stand it when they see other people in pain—and this can be easier said than done with some kids.

Teach Emotional Intelligence

Some children are naturally tender-hearted, quick to step in to help someone out and would rather fall down a set of stairs than hurt someone else’s feelings.

But we know that not all children are like this. Most of my five children aren’t naturally like this but of course, it depends on the specific situation they’re in.

So what can we teach our children to increase their chances of being kind and caring and lessen their chances of turning out to be a bully?

I kind of stumbled upon the idea of “emotional intelligence” by accident. Even though I’ve had little chats with my kids when I’d ask them, “how do you think your brother felt when you told him he was stupid and ugly?”, it didn’t seem to make as much of an impact as when I began to talk about other people’s stories.

I Hate Subs!

It all began when one of my children came home from school, upset because he had a substitute teacher for the day. The substitute teacher was “mean”. The substitute teacher didn’t let him do what he normally did. The substitute teacher was the worst teacher in the world! He hated the substitute!

I listened…for a while. And then I told him that being a substitute teacher was hard. I knew it was hard because I had heard the horror stories my mom told me when she was a substitute teacher.

I told my child, “Imagine how you would feel walking into a room of 25 people you didn’t know and you were expected to be in charge but you had no idea what was going on?”

I went on from there, prompting him to think about what it was like for the substitute that morning when they had answered the call to come in. “How would it feel if you had been that last minute teacher and a bunch of kids you didn’t know anything about starting acting difficult, rolling their eyes and cracking their knuckles as soon as they saw you walk in the door – just because you were a substitute teacher!”

I told them about the times my peers would tell me that they hated my mom. Why? Because she was a substitute teacher. Sure, she wasn’t like the usual teacher, but she was doing the best she could under the circumstances. I didn’t hate her. I liked having my Mom as a substitute teacher, even in Junior High.

Clearly, I was not a normal teenager.

Learning to Give the Benefit of the Doubt

This form of imaginary storytelling can spill over beyond school. When you see a homeless person or someone else who is clearly not having a good day, you can use it as an opportunity to talk to your child about what might have happened.

What if that homeless person had once been a successful businessman who was the victim of fraud? Maybe he got sick, couldn’t go to work, lost his job, and lost his home? We don’t know his story but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume begging on the streets was not his first career choice.

When I’m at the store and someone rudely pushes their shopping cart in front of mine as I get into line at the checkout, I shrug my shoulders. What if that person has had a really bad day and they’re in a rush to get home? Maybe their car had a flat tire. Maybe they have a sick child and they’re in a rush. There are a thousand possible stories you can create that allow the other person some grace.

Because Everyone Has “Days”

We don’t always have to know why someone acts the way they do in order to get over their rude behavior, but I know it helps. Even when we don’t know their story—because we usually don’t—we can still give them the benefit of the doubt. Teaching our children to take a step back and not always take things at face value will help them become more tolerant of other people’s annoying behavior.

So does teaching our kids to give someone else the benefit of the doubt actually work? I’m not saying it’s a guarantee that if you practice this with your child, they’ll be the next Mother Teresa. Trust me, if it worked like that, my children would be saints…but they’re not. Not. Even. Close. (Love you!) I can’t even guarantee you that they won’t make fun of someone else at school.

But it’s a tool I continue to use because I believe it helps my kids learn to give other people a measure of grace.

It’s a tool that will someday, hopefully, make each of them stop and say, “Ah. That’s what my mom was talking about.”

I think that’s what we parents ALL want to hear some day, isn’t it?

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About the Author

Angela Bergman

Angela is a work at home mom who manages the well-being of her five children, ages 8 through 15. She's been married for 18 years to a small business owner who has owned a sports card shop for four years. In her spare time, she fosters puppies for a local animal rescue, walks her own two dogs, writes fiction, and offers fitness consultations to women who are pregnant and postpartum, and anyone who wants to work out at home.

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