Q: My 10-year-old son will be starting middle school in the fall. So far, he has had a pretty sheltered, drama-free experience at a great elementary school. I want him to be aware that bullying goes on and that he needs to tell someone if anything like that ever happens to him. I have thought about taking him to see the movie “Bully,” but am afraid that it will make him fear going to middle school. What do you think?
–Bothered about bullying, in Minneapolis, MN
A: Dear Bully Bothered,
Your concerns echo those of many parents who have children transitioning from one school to another. You are doing the right thing by trying to start a conversation about bullying with your son. However, your instincts on using “Bully” to introduce the subject are right on track. It may be too intense, since it includes a lot of physical and emotional child-on-child violence, as well as the suicides of bullying victims. Try opening the topic in another way.
One way approach could be to take your son for a drive and start the conversation in the car—that way, you won’t have to face each other as you talk, and his attention will be focused on the conversation (provided that he doesn’t have a book, DVD player, radio, or cell phone). Chances are your son isn’t so sheltered that he hasn’t heard about bullying, and he probably has some concerns of his own. Begin the conversation by allowing him to vocalize his thoughts:
- Start with open-ended questions: “How are you feeling about starting middle school? What are you excited about? Worried about?”
- It may help him talk if you depersonalize the topic, ask: “What worries do your friends have about school?”
- If bullying hasn’t come up yet, you can present the issue from your own perspective, saying, “One thing I’m worried about is bullying, which we know can be an issue in some schools. Have you heard about that happening?" And "Please talk to me if you see anything that makes you uncomfortable. Together we can figure out a way to deal with it, and you’ll be helping to keep your school safe.”
When children and their schools see bullying as a community issue, they solve the problem by focusing on the needs of the bullies, victims, and the school community to make a positive change. This approach helps heal the community as a whole and is more effective than using a system of punishment, which often doesn’t address the core of the problem. Presenting the issue this way can help give your son a sense of shared responsibility for his school environment and will not only make him aware of bullying, but also empower him and his schoolmates against it.
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