Has a kid ever asked you how to deal with a bully? Did you have an answer ready? No? I think that’s typical. I doubt many parents are certain of what to advise. “Stand up for yourself” is not specific and “walk away” was likely already considered. Least helpful: “you need to fight this battle yourself.”
Last week, I read a story about adults who offered this last line of advice. In the end, a 12 year old boy drank pesticide after his pleas for help were ignored. This story upset me. Emotional, I whatapp’ed the parents of my son’s class. Along with the URL of the news article, I wrote a hasty note. As I hit send I realized it was rambling. I re-read it:
“We need to teach our kids to deal with conflict … esp when bystanders to bullying. Parents avoid stepping in for fear of making the situation worse. I suspect in reality many don’t know what advice to give. Well I do. I have specific actionable advice and the target actors are the bystanders. I’m not sure how to go about it. Whatapp me if you want to come up with a plan.”
Despite the longwinded text, I assumed the parents would be as moved as I was. I expected some replies, but instead heard crickets … chirping. The next morning … chirp. All day I thought about the tragic fact that no adults in that boy’s life knew how to help. After dinner, my phone jingled. Bless her heart. Shamani responded.
“Laura, we must meet one day 2 talk about your strategies 4 kids who witness bullying. U r rite it’s crucial we teach our kids how 2 act. Mine unfortunately is the target so he does interfere when he sees it happen and ends up being a target 🙁 but he still perseveres.”
The next day, another mother asked to join. And the next day another. On Saturday we will hatch a plan.
I may not have all the answers, but I have a start. For, in running the Customer Advisory Board I learned a lot about uncovering. When I enrolled my son at a parent participation school, I discovered my uncovering skills overlapped with the school’s #1 priority: to teach kids conflict resolution. I was made to take classes and read books. I took the job of teaching 4th and 5th graders conflict resolution. I used tips from the CAB program to teach bystanders how to deal with bullies, and gathered other tips in the process.
Long story short: bullies derive power from silent bystanders. So, I gave the bystanders tips and language to use in-the-moment when witnessing bullying. We role-played and brainstormed alternatives to violence. It went well.
With all of this experience under my belt, why then, why-oh-why then, did I not stand up to a bully two days ago at our dinner party?
Bob just opened a taco restaurant. It’s the only Mexican restaurant on Penang Island and Bob serves muncherific yummy food. We eat there so often it’s embarrassing. We’ve recommended Bob’s restaurant to many, including our neighbors, Mike and Diane (not their real names). Unfortunately, about a week ago, the pair contracted food poisoning. After three days of belly-achin’, they determined Bob’s restaurant was to blame.
Fast forward to last Saturday: I’d ordered nacho’s from Bob and he personally delivered the platter to our party. He came up for a beer and mingled. By six, though, he walked over to Diane and me and announced he had to get back to the restaurant.
“Bob, before you go, I have something to tell you,” Diane said. She explained the food poisoning and that she was certain it’d come from his restaurant. After stating the dishes they’d eaten, I assumed she was done and thanked Bob for coming. Diane started up again. This time, she really laid into him. “I don’t know what kind of an operation you have going on in that kitchen of yours but I imagine it is dirty. You hire these people, you know, these locals, and you can’t trust them. They’re filthy and I’m sure they’re not handling the food properly.”
Bob defended himself. “I do all the cooking and I invite you to come into my kitchen it is spotless. And my staff..”
Diane railed on, “I’m not interested in stepping foot ever again into your restaurant. I certainly won’t go into your kitchen. I don’t know where you buy your meat but it is bad and we will never return to eat there.”
Bob apologized. “Well, okay, but I must say I am not sure what happened. I keep a clean kitchen.”
“I’ll tell you what happened,” Diane barked, “your filthy staff prepared food that made us sick. Sick for three days. We were in bed and running to the bathroom for three days! And it was all because of your food.”
I wanted Donna to stop. I thought she was being unfair and shockingly racist, but I said nothing.
She continued. “I will never go there again and I’m telling everyone I know to never go there.”
“Oh please don’t do that,” Bob said. “I understand if you don’t want to come back but you don’t need to tell people to stay away. That’s unfair.”
“Oh no, I’m going to tell everyone I know to not come.” She went on and on and I sat there, incredulous.
Bob looked at me as if he’d been sucker punched. Then he said, “Well, okay then. I’m sorry you got sick. Laura, thank you for the party.” He left.
Now, the next day, I wonder, why didn’t I said anything? Why didn’t I stop her? It was not okay for her to berate my friend like that. Reporting what had happened was fine, but conjecturing about the state of his kitchen, making racist comments about the staff, and threatening to slow his success, well, that was all unacceptable. She’d acted like a bully. And how did I act? I acted like a bystander, witnessing abuse in silence. Even later that night when she vented to me about it, I bit my tongue.
Now I wonder, “why was I so silent, especially when I know better?”
Well for one, I kept thinking she was done. I tried a few times to move on but she brought the conversation back. Secondly I was in shock. Also, I’m not one to call someone out on their behavior. I figure ‘let them make their bed and lie in it’. Lastly, it was a party. I wanted to avoid conflict, not address it.
And here I am today, feeling very small. All this time I’ve been preaching to bystanders, smugly thinking I could solve the bully problem by getting them to speak up. Teaching those 4th and 5th graders, I was certain they just needed the tools. I thought, “they just need the words.” But the other day I had the tools and the words. Clearly they’re not enough. So, what was I missing? Courage? ‘guess so.
Luckily, when aligning with customers, the environment is usually friendly and gentle. Arguments might happen but they are rooted in co-discovery; they are attempts at answering, “how do we achieve this?” But bullies? They can really throw a person off guard. Their abuse is like a wide-range taser, shocking people all around into silence. It makes me think of the time I tried to coach a bully-of-an-executive and boy did he tear me a new one. I think I stood up for myself quite well then. But last night I failed to stand up for Bob. Why is that? Yep. I’m feeling small.