I just saw Chris Rock in concert. It was a great night with some very funny pointed stuff. While I'm a fan of Rock's, I can't speak definitely on the history of his material though one routine about keeping your daughter off the pole being the mark of a good father is a great bit about parenting delivered in a very funny, obscene way. I found some of his material (particularly about men v. women and relationships) rehashed and, since his bitter divorce and custody battle, more therapeutic ranting than comedy. But the audience generally lapped it up.
He had this new bit about bullies though that I keep thinking about. Essentially he has put his daughters into private school and when he went to the orientation he heard how the school was proud of its no tolerance of bullies policy. His response was nearly to pull his daughters out of school - they needed bullies to make them tough and ready for the real world where bullies even get elected president. I get it. It was a joke. And kinda funny. But it got me thinking, which is the mark of a good comedy show in my book.
I agree with Rock that we do our kids no favours by shielding them from the real world (the irony of him making this assertion in the context of putting his kids into private school seemed not to occur to him or was at least unacknowledged). But the idea of just throwing them into that situation without support seems wrongheaded. Especially given something I just have gone through.
My boys play hockey. Two of them now at a (low) competitive level. Recently my second announced that he wanted to try out for the Select hockey team (a team selected from your local hockey club that plays against other club's teams). Honestly, I wasn't keen on the time and monetary commitment this would entail. I told him he'd have to practice more (I thought this would end it - he takes after me, lazy) Fine, he said. Huh. I told him the only time that worked for me was at 7:00 am on Fridays before school. No problem, he said. I was flummoxed but impressed. Hard-ass.
He worked hard, improved immensely, even being named his house league's team Most Improved Player. Still I wasn't sure he would make the Select team - they were very good, very competitive and a closed shop. Then, a miracle - the entire Select team left to start up a new higher level competitive team elsewhere. So my son tried out and (like every other kid who showed up) he made the team. More importantly, his good friend who lives two blocks away also made the team. Therefore I had a built-in carpool. Which is critical.
"With three boys, I don't care how important something is to them - if there's no carpool it's not happening."
It's been a happy experience, he's getting a lot of hockey, he gets some cool team swag to strut around in and he has achieved a goal of his through hard work, persistence and a fair amount of luck. The team is actually winning many games, which was an open question given the draft process. There is another kid on this team who lives close to us who needed regular rides to games and practices. He has a single mum and they don't have a car. I can't even imagine trying to swing competitive hockey in that situation so, while I wasn't ecstatic about having to do more driving out of my way, there really was no question about we other two families stepping up and bringing him into the car pool.
Over the last few months I've got to know this kid a little and he seemed super happy to have made the team. He scored his first goal recently. But he started missing practices. And then just the other day I heard from my co-driver that he was thinking of quitting the team. Why would he do that? It turns out that some dirt bags on the team have been bullying him when there were no adults around, awarding him the 'worst player of the game' etc. True, this kid isn't an amazing player but everyone made the team because NO ONE ELSE SHOWED UP. But most of the kids on this team are very well-off, entitled, all go to the same private school and summer camp and this kid doesn't fall into any of those categories - to the degree that, instead of being driven to practices in a luxury cross-over, he often takes the bus. And I mentioned: single mum, reduced circumstances etc. In other words - soft target.
I lost my mind.
Then commenced some questionable parenting on my part. I cross-examined my son on what was going on. I got the usual dazed look, shrugged shoulder and non-committal grunt most direct questions elicit. But this time I would not accept it. Within moments I had the whole sordid story. Yes, the kid had been bullied by, surprise surprise, one of the entitled in-group. Surely we've seen enough John Hughes movies by now to know the dynamic. My son didn't participate (thank god!) but he didn't stand up for this kid either. I berated him at that moment - how many damn anti-bullying/empathy-building sessions has he had to sit through at school (at times it seems like they have one of these a week) and he does nothing? He was a tearful wreck by the time I finished with him. Then - remorse.
Clearly, though he had sat through these consciousness-raising sessions, they don't help kids with how hard it is to actually stand up and speak up against this sort of bullshit. All it does is impose another obligation on kids. And one most adults fail at, in my experience. Poor kid was just trying to fit into a new team himself and here I was expecting him to take on the whole in-group power structure like some pint sized Norma Rae. I apologized and I told him I expected him to stand up for this kid and to support him but told him he should find the right way for him to do that. I gave him some ideas. Some were even appopriate and didn't involve swearing.
Now what I needed to do was show him how to stand up to bullies. I emailed the mom and told her we would support her and her kid and outlined what we would do. I contacted one of the team managers, whom I know to be a good man and father, and told him the story. But I heard nothing from the mom. I worried that I had overstepped and maybe she didn't appreciate my butting in. I still felt it needed to be addressed, if only to make sure my son was on a team that was worth being on.
The next day we were all notified that, after the game, there would be a team meeting with all parents and kids. Still nothing from the mom. I fretted. Close to game time she and her son still hadn't arrived - then they rushed in with only a few minutes before game time but didn't have the entrance fee. I paid for them. All I got was a brusque thank you and they rushed off to the changeroom.
I was hurt and felt I'd blundered in and made things worse.Then I started feeling irritated. Was she actually angry at me? And no real thank you or acknowledgement that I had tried to do the right thing? Why did I bother with this crap? And I overheard some other parents complaining about having to go to this meeting, "Why do the parents have to get involved? Let the kids sort this out." Now I was really in a bad mood.
After the game (we won!), the meeting was held and it was handled exceptionally well. No one was centred out but it was made very clear that any more nonsense of this sort would result in real and immediate consequences - less ice time to suspensions to expulsion. Everyone seemed to feel positive (me included) about the meeting and my son definitely seemed glad it had been handled without him. We were joking around when the bullied boy's mom came up to me.
It turns out she hadn't known who I was until she saw me with my son. Ego-check. She thanked me. She was very grateful. She clearly had been at her wit's end and felt alone and unsure what to do. She felt optimistic about the future. I'm sure that there will still be hiccups but I feel we turned a corner. Funny enough, my son, when asked by my wife about the meeting, shrugged and said of course everyone was being on their best behaviour because they knew what the meeting was about - little cynic. But he did say that everyone was pretty keen on playing hockey so, if for no other reason, they'd probably behave. I'm totally OK with that - I'm not expecting these kids to actually get empathetic.
Later that night we got a heartfelt email from the boy's mom - and got a real sense of how they had been struggling, thinking the situation was impossible and ready to give up but that knowing people were there to help them made a huge difference. Her son is now happy and is eager to play. In her words, we "saved her and saved the dreams of a child". Perhaps overblown but she really meant it. I'm a cynical fellow (no kidding) but this obviously got to me. *sniff
Kids learn how to handle bullies not by preventing bullying (because you really can't) or by throwing them into the mix and letting them sort it out on their own (because they lack the skills to do that effectively) but by modelling behaviour that shows them that sometimes taking a stand and speaking out you can change things in a practical way. And that letting people know they are not alone is huge.
In that vein, I replied to the mom's email that we were all happy to help and reminded her that -
as the old African saying goes, "It takes a village to raise a hockey player."