Dear Dave

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Bullying

Dear Dave,

Happy birthday to Daisy! I can hardly believe she's one already. Doesn't time fly?

Actually, don't answer that. I think we both know that where looking after children is concerned, time can do some very peculiar things. A year can disappear but a wet afternoon can drag on forever. The hour they spend napping can vanish in five minutes, while the five minute trip home with a kid desperate for the toilet can take an hour. The weeks start to whizz past so fast that Monday morning seems to come round every day and yet it's always an agonising wait for that tooth to come through or the tantrum to stop or for the kettle to boil so you can have a cup of coffee. (Or is that last one just me?)

The upshot is that they get older quicker than you expect but, then again, so do you.

I guess you're finally moving beyond the baby stage, though. Daisy is eating finger food and you can give her cow's milk. Sterilising stuff is pointless because she can feed herself breadsticks from under the sofa, dirt and passing spiders. Has she learnt to walk? (Being able to take three steps and then clunk her head on the telly counts.)

She may still be 'your little baby' but sit her next to a new born and you'll be astounded at how far she's come in a year. Another few months and she'll most-definitely be a toddler.

In contrast, now that Marie's turned four, I'm officially past all that. I no longer have a toddler in the house. She's a little girl. I should expect to get to the supermarket and back without a child falling over, wanting carried or complaining they need the toilet.

Of course, this seldom actually happens but at least now I can dream. I folded up the buggy the other day and put it away because I hadn't used it in a fortnight. The boys are capable of performing complex errands with a reasonable chance of success. Fraser even volunteered to carry a useful amount of shopping home recently. They really are all growing up.

This does bring new problems, however - the kind of problems that are much harder to deal with than a grazed knee, tired arms or trainers full of pee. The kind that involve social skills, popularity and fitting in at school.

Marie is fine so far. She already has a gaggle of girlfriends who gather round to admire the pinkness of each other's clothing and then swap hugs. Lewis, meanwhile, has a group of like-minded individuals to help him re-enact scenes from Super Mario Galaxy in the playground.

Fraser isn't so lucky. He's a geek in a class full of non-geeks. He's also academic, opinionated and has a lack of tact. Despite only being eight, he probably has as many enemies as he has friends. This rather marks him out as a target.

He generally gets on better with the girls in his class than with the boys but that's just not cool when you're eight. He could do with a couple of mates with big piles of Pokémon cards and an interest in Nintendo. Unfortunately, I can't conjure friends for him out of thin air. School is going to be tough for him on occasion.

I'm keen for it not to be miserable, though.

I was bullied at school. I'm a geek, I'm shy, I'm not adept at a witty put-down, I had glasses from an early age and there is a portion of my genetic code that is part donkey. The only reason I wasn't called 'Big Ears' at school was because everybody was calling me 'Big Nose'. (I'm from Norfolk - I suppose I should feel lucky I'm not part turkey.)

For a few years, I spent a great deal of my existence being embarrassed and/or lonely. The bullying seldom got physical but it was horrible, nonetheless.

I wasn't sporty or popular, so I concentrated on what I could do, which was school work. I strove to excel academically. It was what brought me the most praise and attention from my family. It was what made me special. It was what made me worthwhile. I obsessed about coming top of the class.

This, in itself, didn't win me any friends. Then I became trapped in a situation where when I did well, I got taunted for being a 'swot', and when I didn't do quite as well as normal, I got jeered for 'not being as clever as I thought I was'. The latter was particularly unpleasant because it undermined the shield I'd put up around myself. I only became more stressed about doing well.

I tried fighting back. I tried ignoring the bullies. Neither tactic succeeded. I got contact lenses and stared at my nose from different angles in the mirror. I escaped into computer games and books and pretended I didn't care.

And, over time, I grew to care a lot less.

I realised that if people were going to pick on me, they were going to do it anyway, no matter the size of my nose or the quality of my eyesight or what mark I got in the last test. The people who were calling me names were idiots I didn't want to be friends with anyway.

After that, the bullies had less power over me and found being met with disdain and contempt much more off-putting than any witty retort I could have managed. We all got older and kept out of each other's way.

Sadly, I still feel that my worth is dependent on success. I'm sensitive to criticism, I hate getting things wrong in public and I'm overly keen to make a good impression. I grin like a lunatic when meeting new people. (Please like me! Please...) Whether all these issues are entirely down to the bullying is anybody's guess but the bullying really didn't help. As far as possible, I don't want my kids to have the same trauma.

Quite how to achieve that is the difficult bit...

I suppose the most important thing is to talk to them. We try to get the boys alone every so often (which is surprisingly difficult) and ask how life is going and if they're having any problems. Lewis is usually, "Yeah. Fine. Why are you asking?" but sometimes Fraser will think a little harder and tell us if anything is troubling him. This is a start. I generally kept it all to myself when I was his age.

The times I did confide in people, it didn't go particularly well, which discouraged me from doing it again, so I try to be as sympathetic with Fraser as possible. This alone seems to improve matters.

Working out what to do after that is more difficult. A couple of years ago, Fraser was being harassed by two older children who kept being obnoxious whenever they saw him, asking irritating questions and repeating everything he said. He wanted me to intervene but he only told me about the problem three days before the end of the academic year. I said I'd talk to his teacher if they kept doing it after the summer. They didn't. It all went away. Phew...

More recently, he was being picked on in the playground in the morning. Other boys in his class were lying in wait for him, taunting him to chase them and then acting annoyed if he caught them. To a certain extent, it looked like a game. Fraser kind of liked the attention to begin with but it became more vindictive as the weeks went on. It ceased to be any fun at all when Fraser's friends caved to peer pressure and started joining in.

We told him to ignore the other children and they'd quickly get bored. That didn't work, though. They kept goading him into taking part. Still, it was all relatively mild and confined to the five minutes before school, so we encouraged him to keep trying to sort it out for himself. We thought the eventual outcome would be better that way.

Then, one morning, I was standing at the school door, waiting for Lewis to go in, when I saw Fraser in the distance. He was surrounded by at least eight other boys, a couple of whom weren't even in his class. Two or three of them were making fun of him and Fraser was holding back tears. Another boy shoved him from behind. It looked like it was about to get very ugly.

If I'd seen a similar situation with adults, I'd have called the police.

I would have gone over and got involved myself right then but Marie was holding onto my leg, refusing to go to nursery. It took me a few moments to drag her off and then the bell went. The mob dissolved. The kids disappeared into the school.

There really wasn't any choice but to inform Fraser's teacher. I checked Fraser was happy with that first, however. When I was at school, I was under the distinct impression that telling a teacher about bullying would only make things worse - they'd downplay my story, not believe it or use it to cause humiliation. I thought I might even get into trouble for telling tales. There was certainly no expectation they'd be able to fix the problem and a good chance the bullies would use the whole experience as fresh ammunition.

With hindsight, I now realise that this was maybe exactly what the bullies wanted me to think. If I'd been reasonably careful to pick the right teacher, I'd have been OK. More than that, if I'd talked to my parents and had them backing me up, the situation would definitely have improved. (Teachers are less likely to fob off parents and just having my parents on my side would have been good in itself.)

Bearing this in mind and having been told that schools are much more geared up for discouraging bullying these days, I was optimistic something could be done to help Fraser. Crucially, from what I'd seen of his predicament, getting a teacher involved seemed unlikely to make things worse. I still didn't want to barge in without consulting him, though.

As it turned out, when I spoke to him after school, Fraser was delighted with the idea of me talking to his class teacher about it all. Knowing that he wasn't alone cheered him up. I quizzed him for more details of what had been going on and we both spoke to Mr Campbell at the end of the next day. Mr Campbell was suitably concerned, came up with an action plan and praised Fraser heavily for telling him what was going on.

I didn't hear the details of what happened in class the next day. Fraser didn't want to go into it but he seemed happy enough. Apparently, Mr Campbell had 'sorted it out'. The morning ordeal stopped straight away.

Fraser was also made that week's star pupil in his class - in recognition of 'his sensible decision to talk to people about his problems'. This was possibly a little more attention than I'd have wanted in Fraser's situation but Fraser was too relieved things had been dealt with to care.

Crisis handled... for now.

Fraser is never going to be stunningly popular and there's every likelihood he'll get picked on again in the future. All we can do is keep talking to him and listening. Hopefully he'll learn not to be concerned what other people think of him. That's a lesson I wish I'd picked up earlier and more fully at school.

The one thing I really should have done back then, though, is stuck up for the other victims. If I was going to be unpopular anyway, it might as well have been for doing some good. I had nothing to lose and there's a possibility it would have made school better for everyone.

I'll run that past Fraser sometime soon. I can't see him being too thrilled at the idea but at least I'll have planted the seed...

Ho well, I wonder what else I'm going to have to deal with as the kids get older? How long before it's all sex, drugs and rock'n'roll? One day I'll look back on those trainers full of pee and reminisce about how my problems used to be so simple...

I should be prepared. The way time flies with kids around, that day may well be tomorrow.

Good luck when Daisy brings her first boyfriend home.

Yours in a woman's world,

Ed.

3 comments:

MumAtWork said...

When I was about Fraser's age, a couple of girls from another class used to bully me on the school bus by calling me names and tripping me up.

I told my teacher and things were resolved. I know I was surprised that that actually worked! I'm very glad to hear things are going better for Fraser.

MD said...

That's a heartening story. I was bullied when I was a kid. I was too smart, too proud of my smarts, too clumsy, and almost 2 years younger than everyone else in my class. When it happened first, in a summer camp, I tried to go with it to my parents once, but they dismissed it by asking "what did you do to cause it"? At school, there was no expectation that teachers would help for verbal bullying. Things were not supposed to get physical in theory. In practice, after a particularly bad incident when an older guy hit me on the head, teachers sounded sympathetic, but didn't try to do anything. I thought it was no use telling anyone anything after that.

I grew up very isolated - while bullying was not the only reason, it certainly made things worse. My first real friendships are from my university days - school is mostly a bad memory. And I still feel bad about some ways I acted out - I think it took me a very long time to figure out that hitting people who frustrate me is not a socially acceptable way to deal with problems.

Glad to hear things are better for Fraser!

DadsDinner said...

Thanks for the support. This is liable to be a recurring problem for years to come but at least Sprog1 knows that talking can lead to getting things sorted out.

MumAtWork - It is weird when things actually work the way they're supposed to, isn't it?

MD - School is mostly a bad memory for me, too. (I don't think I had it quite as bad as you, however.) In some ways it's helping me help my kids because I sympathise with their problems. In other ways it makes things harder because I've got my own emotional baggage to deal with. We're getting through it, though...