Most of you probably remember the TV sitcom, Mad About You, starring Helen Hunt as Jamie and Paul Reiser as Paul. In my all time favorite episode, Jamie and Paul were getting ready for bed after a visit from her parents. “How come my family can always push all my buttons?” Jamie asked. “Because they installed them,” Paul replied.
Over 30 years of working with families tell me just how true that is. (You already knew that, too!) There are a couple of other things that are true, as well. One of them is that others can push our buttons, too. Especially public figures.
I think it’s a fair statement that the bullying button for a huge number of Americans has been overwhelmingly pushed, from the right and the left, during this election cycle. Which is kind of ironic when you realize that the election follows close on the heels of National Bullying Prevention Month and National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, both in October. (I’m not making this up!)
For me, this is another of those moments when several things come together and we realize what we may not have realized, at least not consciously, before.
My poet friends have been helpful. Lately I’ve been reading more and more expressions of personal journeys, through bullying and violence and abuse, toward healing. They’re gut wrenching, traumatic journeys of the one step forward, two steps back sort that often do not arrive quickly at happy endings. I have such a journey of my own.
I also have two granddaughters who are growing up in this world.
It seems to me that those of us who have been on the road with bullying and domestic violence and abuse of all sorts owe it to ourselves, and those who come after us, to shine some light on the path. Especially now.
Which brings us to another thing that’s true. We, as families, are just as capable of installing helpful buttons as we are of installing the kind that hold us back!
We can start by consciously working to raise kind and confident children.
Here are some things that will help.
Decide, in this moment, to overcome the cultural temptation to compare everything and everyone, all the time. Let me explain.
When we are small, around 5 or 6 years old, some powerful metaphorical beings known as “Inner Critics” take up residence in our minds. One of the most troubling of those is the one often known as The Comparer. Comparisons aren’t always bad. As a strategy, they can be pretty useful. Say, assembling a bookcase from IKEA. It’s just not the only strategy we want to have available!
I had a real lightbulb moment about all this when I realized that my mom, who certainly meant well, said, for decades, that I was the smart kid and my sister was the artistic kid. I was 40 years old before I realized it was possible to be both smart and artistic!
That was not a helpful use of the comparing strategy. Neither of us was lacking. We approached the world differently. As we all do. Speaking only for myself, life has been a lot more fun since I enlarged my concept of me.
The Comparer becomes big trouble when we focus on things such as like me or not like me. Stronger or weaker. Healthy or disabled. And then, in our fear that we might not measure up, we look for ways to prove our worth at the expense of others. And, sometimes, we decide that the rules of a kind and hopeful world do not apply to us.
The problem is not just with bullies, though. The problem is also with those who identify themselves as victims and lose hope. Who stop trying. Who give up on themselves and the world. Tragically, that can also begin to happen when we are very young.
So what do we do?
First, we borrow a belief from my old friend, Steve Glenn. There’s no such thing as failure (which usually implies comparison). Only experience to be learned from!
I know. That’s not the way you learned it. If you need to, fake it ’til you make it!
One of the lights of your life comes home from school, dejected, and says, “I didn’t win the spelling bee!” (Which, come to think of it, they probably don’t have anymore, but stick with me…)
You resist the urge to inquire about how many kids were eliminated before your little one. Instead you go with a big hug and, “Well, honey, what did you learn?”
Suddenly, whatever they come up with becomes something to celebrate. (It takes some practice!) And the experience becomes about your child and what they can carry into the future rather than trying to find consolation in the number of kids who feel worse.
Then, repeat, at every opportunity.
(And just in case you’ve ever done it the old way, welcome to the club! This stuff is ingrained in us from the time we were learning to talk. Remember, no such thing as failure!)
Secondly, try really, really hard to erase the “somebody made me…” paradigm from your brain. Ok, at least from your conversations. As hard as it is to grasp, “somebody called me a name (or laughed at my braces, or shoes, or whatever) and made me feel… Nope!
Or somebody “made me hit them.” Not!
Our responses come from within us. It’s too simple to say that we choose them, especially for little kids. They are, however, products of our memories and beliefs and the strategies we’ve learned, often from the tall people around us. And the more conscious we are of them, the more we can choose the ones that serve us best.
Every time we do what is kind and just and honorable, even in the face of our fear or lust for power, we become one of the peaceful community. And every time we walk away, head high, the bully looses a bit of power and we are strengthened in our decision not to be a victim. Really!
Which doesn’t make it easy. The older our kids get, the higher the risk from bullies. That’s why we start now. Being conscious. Creating new realities with our language. Giving up failure as a concept. Focusing on the learning.
If your kids are around 7 or older, you can have a conversation with them (remembering that readiness for abstract thought and impulse control are still a long way off!) and explain that the way we’ve all learned to talk about some of these things probably doesn’t help deal with them, so we can work together to learn a new way to frame them. That’s an empowering concept all by itself!
This also seems like a good time in history to model our own strength as wonderful, worthwhile human beings for our kids.
Here are some good sources for more information on “breaking the cycle of violence and creating more deeply caring communities,” as well as loving oneself, with huge thanks for recommendations to my friend, author, and teacher of peace, Linda Ragsdale. http://thepeacedragon.com
Words and Not Opposites Linda Ragsdale. Flowerpot Children’s Press (Amazon, for young kids.)
How to Handle Cyberbullies Ann Truesdale. Cherry Lake Publishing (Amazon, for kids.)
the bully, the bullied, and the not-so-innocent bystander Barbara Coloroso. Harper Collins, 2015 ISBN 978-0-06-257216-5
The No Asshole Rule…building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t Robert I. Sutton, PhD. Grand Central Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-0-446-69820-7
We really can make a difference!