My nine-year-old son is constantly getting bullied at school. His clothes are always the butt of jokes (though they are no different from others’) and he is called a pansy because he is not the sporty sort. Should we complain to the principal? My husband says no, because there’s no physical violence, and he believes that it’s important that our son learn to defend himself. I say that stepping in conveys to him that people care and will protect him. What’s the solution?
It is particularly important with boys that they learn to take some of this stuff on their chin, ignore it or even give back. (Girls need to do this, too, but the whole bullying-teasing thing seems to be more muted and not so merciless among girls of this age.) Before stepping in (which you may have to do if it gets relentless or physical), you can help your son with a few strategies:
Ignore the teasing. You may have already asked him to do this, but help him ignore it truly and not just appear to ignore it. At home, talk about the teasers so that they appear boring, like a stuck record. If your son is able to see his tormentors as silly fellows with nothing better to do, he may be able to ignore them better. It’s a difficult concept for a nine-year-old, but try it.
Tease right back. This is not in the tradition of Gandhigiri, no doubt, but a few smart comebacks involving some traits of the teasers may go a long way in discouraging the bullies. While this is not something one likes to do, you might have to help him actually find a little ammo. Try to get him to do this in a kidding, offhand manner, and not in battle-cry mode.
Agree with the teaser. One way to frustrate teasers is to agree with whatever they say, in a bland or funny/absurd way. You could get him to say things such as: “Of course my shirt is funny, so what?” or “Yes, I wore this just so that you could laugh; see how kind I am.”
About the name-calling, particularly ‘pansy’ and suchlike, you might just need to step in at some point, and do three things (in ascending order of ‘counter-thugging’):
Enlist an expert. Get the teacher-in-charge or principal to have a sensible talk about this to the class/school in general—particularly on the issue of studious students versus sports lovers, and the pointlessness of the so-called ‘divide’.
Phone the parents. Take the intervention a step forward by either calling the teasers’ parents and having a (hopefully) calm conversation about this.
Butt in casually. Try dropping in at the end of a school day and address some laughingly warning remarks to the teasers themselves. Preferably do it along with your husband or ask him to do it alone. Because with boys, “mama came to save you” teasing can quickly follow if only you go in.
While all this sounds like the stuff of strategic war manoeuvres, do try to carry them out as casually as possible, so that your son can put all this in perspective and it doesn’t turn into an unsavoury episode in his life.
(Email your questions to Gouri at firstname.lastname@example.org)