I shared a story on my instagram a couple weeks ago about sending our kiddos back to school with kindness. Encouraging our kids to include those who are left out. Not to tease or bully those who may learn or play differently. To worry less about setting them up for academics and more about sending them back with the tools needed to be kind. The response was overwhelming. The most overwhelming part was all of the stories I got from Moms whose kiddos, as young as 4 years old had experience bullying and cruelty from their peers. My own son has also experienced micro aggressions from peers and he is only 7. This isn’t okay and I feel like a bigger conversation should be had.
I considered doing another IG story about the topic but wanted to create this post so the conversation could hold a more permanent place. I sat and thought for a long time about the kiddos who have teased my son. I thought about the families, households and parents those kiddos who have teased him, come from. The scariest part of this reflection was the realization that these kids all come from GOOD homes with INVOLVED parents. Yet are still exhibiting these behaviors toward my son, their peer, who has Autism. I immediately thought, my gosh if kids from good homes and involved families are subject to becoming bullies, how do we combat the epidemic? Why is it happening? What are we doing “wrong”? I don’t have all the answers, not even close. I don’t even know if the answers I have come up with can make an impact, but felt like I needed to dig deeper into this topic, in some small way. This list is composed of subtle mistakes SO MANY of us make, as parents. Ones I think we need to work harder to avoid making.
I want to preface this with I am NOT the authority in child rearing. Nor am I claiming to be the worlds greatest or most well educated parent. These ideas and suggestions that I will list here are what my husband and I have come up with based our own very extensive parent training we have be given through our sons autism behavioral intervention team and our own experiences.
Step 1) DO NOT fight in front of your children- Our children should not be watching our fights or arguments. Our very adult stresses and frustrations should not be a part of their everyday. Also, I have seen many relationships where the fighting ultimately leads to name calling or belittling. For children to see this behavior exhibited between those who they look toward for guidance, teaches them that this is how you speak to people and/or behave when they themselves feel overwhelmed or anger. The developing minds and spirits of our young kids do not have the maturity to understand the complexity of marital stress. They will take these interactions at face value and emulate the behavior. We do however feel it is healthy for our kids to see us resolve conflict in a healthy way. It teaches them that disagreements can happen and be resolved with respect and level heads.
Step 2) DO NOT gossip in front of your children- Our children may not understand exactly who we are talking about. They do however understand the words and tone are unflattering. If they hear Mommy or Daddy saying something unkind like- “did you see what she was wearing, not the most flattering dress for her”. Or- “she has gained a lot of weight, that’s too bad, she used to be so beautiful”. What they have absorbed is- a) My parents makes fun of how people look. b) They’re my teacher. c) It must be okay to make fun of how people look… or whatever the topic of the gossip was/is. The old adage “Do as I say not as I do” does not work. Rather “Monkey see, monkey do” is what actually happens.
Step 3) DO NOT make fun of your friends, in front of your kids, with playful banter- Okay, lets say you’re having a BBQ and one of your closest friends arrives and he has grown a bushy mustache. You, his friend of 20 years, think it looks hilarious and you guys have a relationship where you can heckle him about it. That is all fine and well, BUT don’t do it front of your kids. They don’t have the maturity to understand the difference between heckling a friend who knows it’s in jest, versus cruelly mocking someone. If their parents can say to a friend- “oh my gosh, brother, what died on your face”!?… and they see that insult was met with laughter, they learn teasing is funny, even cool. Why can’t they then go to school and make fun of their peers new haircut, glasses, lisp? Dad did it and everyone laughed and Dads cool. I wanna be like Dad. Little pitchers have big ears.
Step 4) DO NOT let your personal baggage guide your parenting- When your kid comes home from school crying and tells you how Susie said she looked ugly in that shirt and wouldn’t sit with her at lunch. You may get triggered by all of your own mean girl experiences and Mama bear instincts, go into defense mode and blurt out- “Susie called YOU ugly, does Susie have a mirror! I have never liked her, you need to stay away from that girl”. STOP all this does is combat mean-ness with more mean-ness and encourages your child to be cruel back to the offender. Trust me the Mama bear in me would want to go cut off Susies right pigtail pony as well, but it won’t help our kids navigate these waters. It wont help them maintain the high ground and wont encourage them to always be an includer. Instead listen to your child. Let them feel their feelings; let them vent. When they’re ready ask them how THEY want to handle the scenario at school tomorrow. What THEY think is the best choice. We need to be their advocate, not a lioness out for blood. By being their advocate we teach them how to navigate these harsh waters when we aren’t there to protect them. If after talking calmly your child doesn’t know what to do you can encourage them to choose a new friend to play with tomorrow, remind them that when others say unkind things to us, it has nothing to do with us. It usually means that friend is having a very hard time, for things we may not understand. That it’s okay to keep a distance from them, until they (your child) feels like they are a safe friend for them again. If Susie approaches them to play the very next day, tell them to advocate for themself. Empower them to say- “You really hurt my feelings yesterday and I didn’t like how that felt. I would not tease you that way and I don’t want you to tease me that way. We’re friends”. Let Susie decide if she is going to accept responsibility, and if not, your child can say- I’d rather not play today, my feelings are still hurt.
Step 5) DO be a united front as parents- Do not undermine, over-rule, or diminish your partners parenting. My husband and I mostly see eye to eye on our parenting techniques, but occasionally have different styles for how we handle things. However if he is the lead on discipline and/or reward for any given scenario, Mommy can’t swoop in and change it. This act will lessen your partners authority and teach the child they can play sides. I can’t get what I want from you, so you’re less valuable to me, let me go see if I can get what I want from someone else. It’s a lesson in manipulation, control and exclusion. It is also very confusing for the child. (This step doesn’t apply in the instance of abuse. If you see your partner abusing a child with verbal or physical reprimand, you step in)
Step 6) DO Admit to your kids when YOU are wrong- If you lose your temper. If you gossip. If you poke fun at someone. If you name call. If you make a mistake, because you are human… tell them that you realize what you did. Explain what you did, why it was wrong, and what you should have done differently. Explain, help them understand that grown ups make mistakes. If you are out of line with them, apologize. I have lost my temper and raised my voice to Finn. Once I’d calmed down, I knew I was out of line. I then went to him, looked him in the eyes and said- “I was wrong. I am sorry. Yes, I am disappointed in your choices and you are still in a timeout, but your behavior does not give me the right to yell at you the way I just did, I’m sorry, I was wrong and it was unkind. I will do my best not to make this mistake again”. We also encourage our kids to call us out when they hear or see us making bad decisions. They need to know Mom and dad aren’t perfect and we makes mistakes. We need to make sure we don’t become hypocritical in their eyes. They can’t learn/feel- I get punished for these behaviors, but my parents can and do them daily. That disconnect is how we end up with teenagers who don’t respect our authority. Respect is earned.
I know this is just the tip of the iceberg and I would love to hear any tips and tricks you may also have for raising kind kids who are includer’s. Also, please know I am not trying to make anyone feel less than, or act as if my parenting style is the only way. I just hope we can agree this list is filled with techniques that could be beneficial in every household. Here’s to us and to raising includers!