What’s the best way to ask a bully’s mom to stop her child from picking on yours?
Chicago area parenting and education experts have one word of advice: Don’t.
Christie Clarke, a former teacher who now gives parenting workshops and in-home consulting with her business Out-a-Box Parenting, has seen well-intentioned moms and dads make this mistake way too often.
"Moms who have had enough think they can approach the other parent in a very calm, low-key fashion," says Clarke, also known as "The Nanny of Elgin." "They feel sure that once they have shared this information with the bully’s mom that certainly the other mother will want to make the necessary adjustments in their kid’s behavior."
That’s the way it would go in a perfect world. But, in real life, it’s sure to backfire.
"There’s really no way to go after a bully’s parent that’s not going to be completely ineffective and make everyone feel worse," Clarke says. "Instead of engaging the other parent’s cooperation, you’ve just said hello to World War III."
Just don’t do it
After 12 years of teaching high school and middle school, Derek Randel learned that lesson first-hand at the front of a classroom. Motivated by menacing statistics showing bullying and violence cause about 160,000 empty school desks every day, Randel launched the organization Stopping School Violence and wrote a book with the same title to help empower students, parents and educators to handle bullying.
"You might not like this answer, but I do not recommend talking with the bully’s parents," Randel says.
Why not approach the situation head-on by opening meaningful dialogue with other rational adults?
"Unfortunately, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree," says Randel, of Wilmette, who has appeared on Fox News, CNN and WTTW’s "Chicago Tonight" to talk about bullying.
"The bully has learned at home that violence is a way to solve problems," he says. "The bully is also a victim …"
By trying to open mom-to-mom (or dad-to-dad) communication, parents are likely to realize little except opening themselves up to an older incarnation of the same bully who is browbeating their child, Clarke and Randel concur.
"Bullying is a trickle-down trait. It’s passed from generation to generation to generation," Clarke says. "A child is a bully because his parent was a bully because his parent was a bully."
Clarke will never forget the crisis a parental showdown over bullying sparked outside her classroom at a suburban private school. One mother decided to engage another in a chat about the harassment her son was suffering. The confronted mother erupted in a fit of foul language and screaming, staging a stunning example of how not to behave for a hallway full of impressionable youngsters. The school year ended with the bully and his two brothers leaving the school and several teachers fired amid darting accusations.
Before they get to the Do’s of deflating despots, Clarke and Randel have a few more Don’ts.
Don’t tell your son or daughter to fight back, Clarke says. That’s just perpetuating the problem. It’s taking the "drill sergeant" approach by dictating reactions for your child.
Besides, it’s just not practical. Telling the child to fight is usually the wrong message since most victims are physically smaller and not as aggressive as the one doing the bullying, Randel says.
"When I was growing up, fighting the bully was how I handled it and it worked," he says. "Today, society is different. Fighting is not suggested. Schools have come up with … ‘zero
tolerance’ rules. Fighting back can get you expelled today," he says.
Try this instead
The best thing is not to tell kids exactly how to handle bullying at all, Clarke says. Come at the issue more as a consultant than a coach, she advises. The key is to help kids discover the social skills he or she needs to fend off a pestering playmate.
"You don’t want to swoop in like a helicopter parent and give your child the message ‘You’re too weak. You need me to fix this for you,’ " Clarke says.
As a teacher and in workshops, Clarke initiates class conversations by asking questions such as, "Why do you think some kids are mean?" This lets youngsters frame resolutions for themselves.
Clarke has an arsenal of pithy one-liners designed to suck the sting from the antics of a would-be oppressor. She encourages kids to practice a cool, unruffled look in the mirror and recite snappy comebacks to critical comments, such as "thanks for sharing" or "I never thought of that."
And for physical intimidation like an elbow or a shove, there’s "Not a good idea" and "Do you really want to do that?" followed by a steady walk in the other direction. If the persecution becomes more violent, that becomes a legal issue, Randel says. If a person gets threatening phone calls or e-mails, contact the police. This is considered harassment and is a criminal offense.
"A lot of what bullying is is against the law," he says. "I would rather see a third party talk with the parents. This could be a teacher, principal or the police."
Skills for life
Whether or not a kid has been a victim, they’re going to need skills to keep aggressors at bay as they move through life, Clarke says. They might have to endure a bullying spouse, boss or co-worker.
So experts say don’t waste time trying to negotiate with the bully’s parents. Focus on helping your flock learn to draw on the strength and self-confidence within themselves to prevail over tough guys as they grow.
"Don’t be provoking another bully," Clarke says. "Instead, help children get ready for teasing and bullying because it is going to come up. Give them skills that will be valuable through their entire lives."
In the face of teasing or bullying
One-liners to help build your child’s emotional core, rather than rescuing (as in "helicopter") or fighting back (as in "drill instructor"):
• "That’s interesting."
• "I never thought about it like that."
• "Thanks for sharing."
• "I like ya too much to argue."
• "That’s sad you feel that way"
• "Let’s talk about that later."
• "I’ll give that some thought."
• "That must feel terrible."
• "I’ll get back to you on that."
• "What a bummer…"
Source: Adapted by Christie Clarke, Out-a-Box Parenting Group
What to tell your kids
• Remember you’re not the problem, the bully is.
• You have the right to feel safe and secure at all times.
• Be proud of what makes you different.
• Go to school every day—you have every right to be there.
These are just words and mean nothing if we do not follow up on these statements. The child needs to know that we are there to support them.
Source: Derek Randel, Stopping School Violence
Robyn Monaghan is a freelance writer and mom living in Plainfield.