Gender Stereotypes, Bullying, and Stepping Up: What We Learn from Michael Morones

We need to step up. We need to be the generation of parents who puts an end to bullying in our schools. No more excusing it, no more silence. No more thinking someone else will take care of it. No more kids feeling the only way to escape is to kill themselves.

Last week we learned about Michael, a kind and creative boy who was bullied by his peers because he loved My Little Ponies and the violin. They said he was acting like a girl. They said he was gay. Michael hung himself, and is now surrounded by family and love as he fights to wake up and resume his life. Michael is eleven years old.

“Girly” and “gay” must stop being used as slurs. All people have worth. Being a girl or being gay does not devalue a person. The way a child expresses their individuality has little to do with their gender or sexuality. Gender stereotypes are hurtful and we need to take action to make them unacceptable.

My good friend and colleague Carrie Goldman (author, “Bullied”) brings our attention directly where it needs to be: “We must continue to educate our young people on the fact that gender stereotypes are harmful, and that it is okay for boys and girls to play with all toys, not just the ones marketed to their gender.”

The silence of Michael’s school is also completely unacceptable. Become familiar with the bullying policy at your child’s school. Be proactive and talk to teachers and the principal. Look into programs like Buddy Benches or start an after school Kindness Club. Create a message wall where students can write kind messages to each other on post it notes. If you are at school and see students being unkind to each other, say something to them and set the example for the children around you. Finally, talk with your children at home about being an active witness when they encounter bullying and let them know they can always come talk to you and receive your full attention.

Christian Bucks developed a Buddy Bench for his school. (Image via HuffPo)

Christian Bucks developed a Buddy Bench for his school. (Image via HuffPo)

More info on Buddy Benches: http://magazines.scholastic.com/news/2013/12/Buddy-Bench

Interactive book for K-3 students on stopping bullying, “Jake and Riley’s Recess Rescue”: http://www.pigtailpals.com/jaandrirere.html

A special thank you to my dear friend Carrie Goldman, who is so passionate about this issue and a true champion for our kids. If you have not yet, please pick up a copy of her book “Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear (Harper Collins, August 2012)” and learn more about the issue and how we can stop it.

Book Review: “Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs To Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear”

In 2010 I reached out to a mom whom I had never met, but I knew her story through the blogosphere. Her young daughter Katie was being bullied in her first grade class for liking Star Wars. Like thousands of other people I reached out to little Katie’s family, and began chatting with Katie’s mom Carrie over email. I sent Katie and her little sisters some girl-power Redefine Girly tees from the Pigtail Pals shop, the girls sent me a thank you card with a robot on it and some awesome drawings, and the rest is history.

Carrie Goldman and I became fast friends, mostly because we have kids the same age and we are navigating the world as parent activists/bloggers who are trying to create change via education on social media. She is also, in a word, awesome. Her whole family is.

I was thrilled last year when Carrie told me about her book deal, and honored when she interviewed me for the book. Her new book, “Bullied” comes from a place of passion. You feel it on the pages, because you can feel Carrie’s genuine concern that we change. You feel Carrie’s devotion to teaching us to change the way we look at bullying, its victims, and the bystanders. Chapters look at components like: gender and not conforming to it, physical appearance, GLTB kids, sexualization, gendered marketing, social and emotional learning, restorative justice, and creating family environments that create neither bullies nor victims. Carrie pulls in experts to give words of wisdom between the candid stories she shares from other families dealing with the issue that worries so many parents: Will my child be bullied?

In “Bullied”, Carrie calls on parents, educators and schools, communities, retailers, celebrities, and media to examine our own stereotypes and embrace our joint responsibility for creating a culture of acceptance and respect. This message greatly resonated with me, as I have experienced bullying as a victim when I was younger and as a parent. This past year in kindergarten a boy in my daughter’s class decided to single out her and little Benny. He terrorized them for months on the playground. In the beginning, I tried to let the kids navigate the friendship and solve their own problems, but when the problems became systematic and targeted, I would have none of it. Playground spats turned into violence against my children, and at one point the child told my daughter he would kill her if she didn’t become his girlfriend. That day after school, Amelia ran out the doors and onto the playground, threw her bag on the snow, turned to her bully coming after her, and with tears streaming down her face she screamed in a mighty voice that he had no right to threaten her or kill her, that he was a bully, and that if he went after her little brother that afternoon, she’d hurt him. All of the moms nearby immediately intervened, and the next morning I was cussed out by his mother on the playground. My head was kind of swirling, because I had no idea how to really handle it. I knew the steps to take, but I had to talk Amelia down from her “heart startles” from this boy’s eruptions and assure her she was safe at school. She had nightmares, and her little brother was equally terrified of this kid. We tried approaching the teacher a few times, and I met with the principal, but ultimately the child was doing most of the bullying before and after school, so there wasn’t much they could do. This particular child was constantly in trouble, but sadly, he wasn’t the teachers’ biggest problem student and this little guy fell through the cracks. I wanted to bop him on the head and hug him at the same time.

It was difficult to help my children navigate their feelings and rightful anger about the situation, while at the same time teaching them empathy and understanding and dealing with adversity. First grade begins in just under a month, and after reading “Bullied”, I feel much more prepared to handle an issue should it arise this year. “Bullied” is full of proven strategies and concrete tools for teaching children how to speak up and carry themselves with confidence; call each other out on cruelty; resolve conflict and cope with teasing, taunting, physical abuse, and cyberbullying; and be smart consumers of technology and media. This is the book that will help us do better.

And we can. Do better.

“When you know better you do better.” -Maya Angelou

Katie "Star Wars Katie" and Carrie Goldman

I have four copies of “Bullied” to give away. Let me know in the comments here how you would use this book to change the culture around bullying to one of dignity and respect. I will pick four winners on Friday, August 10th at 10pm CST.

You can find Carrie on her wonderful blog, on facebook, and twitter. You can share your story or advice about bullying here, and join me on Team Bullied.

To order your copy of “Bullied”, go straight to Amazon or click here.

To book Carrie to speak, please make arrangements through Suzanne Wickham at Harper Collins. Her email is Suzanne (dot) wickham (at) harpercollins (dot) com.

I really loved her book, and I hope you find it as useful as I did.


 

 

I am on Team Bullied

I had injured my knee when I was in basketball in seventh grade, and was on crutches with a hip-to-ankle leg brace the day I got on a bus and rode ninety minutes from home with other students from my school to attend a Student Council leadership conference. It turned out to be one of the worst days of my life. I was, for reasons still unclear to me, the target of vicious bullying in seventh grade largely led by two girls who took every opportunity to demonstrate their hate for me. The teachers did nothing, other students did nothing. For months and months and months, nothing. The bullying was so bad at one point an incredibly inept guidance counselor told my parents we should consider moving.

I had no friends in seventh grade save one, a girl who is still my friend today. I got on that bus with the feeling something bad was going to happen, above and beyond the usual daily crap I took from the kids at school (like “slam books” being passed around with horrible things written about me or having obscenities scrawled with my makeup all over my gym locker or people kicking my crutches out from under me and laughing as I fell to the floor). The high school this conference was held at was an enormous school in a suburb of Milwaukee. After the final sectional of the day, we had to hurry to get back to our bus. The kids from my school, led by my main bully, took all these confusing turns and hallways intentionally trying to lose me as I struggled to keep up on my crutches. I could hear them laughing at me and taunting me. I heard my bully say, “She’s been like a dog following us all day. Let’s lose her!” And they did, they took off running and I couldn’t keep up with my crutches and after not too long, I couldn’t hear their footsteps anymore. It was winter and had become dark outside by the late afternoon, and I was completely lost inside this giant high school. I let my crutches fall to the ground, then my body followed, and I began to sob. I was lost, physically and emotionally. I had no idea why these kids hated me so, so much. Where did their cruelty come from?

My teacher came looking for me, and found me in a teary puddle on the floor. He sat down next to me, put his arm around me, smoothed my hair, and hugged me. And then he said, “Missy, they hate you because you are better than them.” I never told anyone what he said to me, but it stopped the suicidal thoughts going through my head. He helped me up, we walked back to the bus in silence. I rode home in the seat across the aisle from him in the front of the bus, crying quietly and just aching to get home and fall into my mom’s arms. When we got back to school, I quickly and quietly hopped down the stairs of the bus and walked into school while he stayed on the bus and gave the kids some wrap up notes for the day.

I was trying to get my books and back pack and get the hell out of there, but my leg in the brace was throbbing with pain at this point and I couldn’t move fast enough. The kids started filing up the stairs to our hallway of lockers, quietly staring at me. The teacher must have said something.

And then it happened.

My bully came up to me, put her hand on my neck and made a motion like how you would take a leash off a dog. She said loudly, “There  you go you bitch dog, you are free of  your leash and don’t have to follow us anymore.”

Where she touched me on my neck felt like fire. I saw white and my ears rang. And then I exploded. I dropped my crutches and in one swift motion grabbed her by her throat with one hand, lifted her in the air, and pile drove her into the bank of lockers. I slammed her into the lockers, as hard as I could. I held her in the air by her throat, and hissed at her through clenched teeth that I may be a bitch dog, but she was nothing but dog shit and that I hated her more than she hated me. I said I was done with it, and tomorrow, she had better leave me alone. Then I threw her to the ground and left her there in a snotty, crying mess. And I heard everyone laughing at the bully who had terrorized our entire grade for a year.

I collected my things and began the long, cold, crying, painful walk to my house. When I got in the door, my mom hugged me and said I wasn’t in trouble. She must have gotten a phone call. My dad hugged me. My brothers checked on me later that evening. I had people around me who loved me and showed it, which is why I didn’t kill myself that night. But I wanted to. I didn’t really want to, but this was my breaking point. I just couldn’t take one more day of being made to feel worthless. Mostly, I didn’t do anything drastic that night because I loved myself and I knew that what the teacher had said was right. I was better than them.

The next day when I walked into school, kids were smiling at me and saying hi. Not just hi, they were saying my name. Like I was a real person. I had people to sit by in lunch and study hall. Things changed very quickly for me. I was instantly liked by my classmates again and by the beginning of 8th grade, I was popular and remained so through high school.

What became of my bully? She was largely ostracized and bullied by most of the school until the day we graduated. So, I did what I had been brought up to do – I befriended her. We became very close friends, actually. I stood up for her. I stood up for other kids being picked on. I had words with boys who were bullying my younger brother. I broke up fights, and had secret therapy sessions in the bathroom with girls who were where I was that horrible winter day. I kept everyone’s secrets, still to this day. I was in every club and every sport, and enjoyed being friends with all the kids jocks to band geeks. Because no one has the right to make you feel small.

My senior year of high school we studied the Holocaust for many weeks, culminating in a large display of mixed media art. We had two Holocaust survivors acting as mentors for our class. One warm spring day, I was designated by my teacher to walk the woman back to her car. She was elderly and walked slowly with a cane. She had parked really far away from the parking lot, down the block and up a hill. It took us forever to reach her car, but I was so honored to be in her presence that I reasoned it would totally be worth the inevitable detentions I was about to get. She told me about her sister and mother and father who had been killed in the camps. She didn’t tell me about their deaths, she told me about their days spent alive. She told me about her favorite dress, and how dirty it had gotten on the train to the work camp she was deported to. She told me about the children she had birthed in America, and what a lovely place America was. I couldn’t speak the entire time, I just held tightly to her arm wrapped in mine as we walked. The sun was warm on our backs.

We reached her car and she said to me, “Your project is one of the best in the class. Do you know how I know this? It made me cry. Not a lot of kids understand this. What happened. You do. You touched my heart and now you need to promise me, when you see injustice, you are to be not silent. Repeat that to me.”

I stood there for an unknown amount of time, dumbstruck. I found my voice and I said, “My promise to you is that whenever I see injustice, I will always be not silent.”

I have always kept my promise to her. I always will. I will always be not silent. Those words are burned into my heart.

 

I don’t feel like making a video about my bullying experience for Team Bullied, because I can write better than I can talk. But I did make a video about bullying and my friend Carrie Goldman’s new book “Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs To Know To End the Cycle of Fear”, and you can see it here.

Tomorrow I’ll review her excellent book, and tell you how I’ve dealt with bullying as a parent, and how I am teaching my children to create a culture of dignity in their school and with their peers.

No one has the right to make you feel small. When it does happen, be not silent.