Carolyn Hax: How can I raise a child who doesn’t bully and isn’t bullied?

Carolyn Hax
Columnist July 7

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

With all the bullying in the news these days, I’m wondering (as the mom of a 15-month-old) if you have any advice for raising children who don’t bully and don’t allow others to bully them.

Wondering

Sure, I’ll dash that off in 500 words.


(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

It’s a great and sweeping and relevant question, so I’ll try to assemble a couple of coherent thoughts.

1. Even if we figure out the exact answer, your child will be on the giving and receiving end of meanness. There’s no avoiding it altogether. “Best Friends, Worst Enemies,” by Thompson/O’Neill-Grace/Cohen, which I recommend often, is very clear and reassuring on this. Kids have to learn how to get along just as they have to learn to walk, and the process isn’t pretty sometimes.

2. How are you at tightrope-walking? To raise kids who don’t bully, you need to supervise carefully and correct as needed, like when they say mean things to people’s faces or behind their backs: “Hey — how would you feel if someone said that to/about you?” To raise kids who don’t allow others to bully them, you need to teach your kids to assert themselves instead of your doing it for them all the time. It’s a constant balancing and re-balancing act as they grow, but it hinges on learning to step in only when their defenses aren’t strong enough to protect them (with abusive relatives, for example). Bonus, you don’t know whether you’ve gotten it right till it’s almost too late to do anything about it. And, different kids/temperaments/personalities need different balances.

3. Another kind of balance matters, too — between their feeling important to you and their not being misled into thinking they’re the center of the Earth. Your home needs to be a safe place for them to express their feelings and try new things (which will include trying on the idea of being mean to you — good times) and to be significant, but you also need to be the boss. And, the wide, wide world, where they are but a small speck, also needs to feature in their education. They need to get out, see others unlike them, give of themselves to others, get introduced to big ideas.

All this and more. (I opened a reader-discussion forum on it, too: bit.ly/BullyBGone.)

Re: Bullying

Also important is the behavior you model for your kids. There are so many subtle ways people “bully” others. Many families have a member who is “teased” constantly. Even if the people doing the teasing think it is “in good fun,” this sends the message that picking on people is not a big deal. That is a problem.

Anonymous

Good point, thanks. This is an extension of the home-as-safe-place point I made, but it’s important enough to warrant breaking it out. In a two-parent home, the respect in that relationship is on display at all times, too, especially when everyone’s guard is down.

Re: Bullying:

The antidote is empathy. If you can cultivate walking in another’s shoes, that really goes a long way.

Anonymous 2

Right! That’s the goal of “How would you feel . . . ?” questions. Teaching kids to pitch in, at home and in the community, steers that way, too, thank you.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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