Recently, a friend called me with a problem that she was hoping I’d have an answer for. The girls in her daughter Margaret’s 6th grade class were excluding her, and she didn’t know what to do about it. Sometimes these girls acted like her friends, and other times they “forgot” to save her a seat on the bus or invite her to a sleepover. Margaret was hurt, and my friend was at her wit’s end, devastated at what her daughter was going through with these chameleons.
Most parents in this situation go into “fix it” mode, willing to do anything to make it better. But can we really change how other kids behave? Chances are slim. Plus when we attempt to rescue our kids from hurt feelings by changing the people around them, we deny them the opportunity to learn valuable life skills for coping with any situation that may make them sad, anxious, or angry in the future.
My friend said she’d tried everything. “I called the teacher, but she never witnesses this behavior happening. I called the mom of the main mean girl, but I think she’s as big a problem as the daughter.” What about Margaret, I asked? “Margaret has spoken up for herself and told the other girls multiple times that they are hurting her feelings, but the girls just don’t know how or want to be nice. How can I get them to be nicer?!”
To quote Shakespeare, “Aye, there’s the rub.” How do we get other kids to behave better? The short answer is, we don’t.
Pop quiz: Let’s say your son comes home from school, sulking. You ask what’s wrong and he (of course) replies, “Nothing.” Later, you find his new Storm Trooper t-shirt in the trashcan. He just asked for that shirt for his birthday, you think, and pull it out to rescue it. When you press him about this, he confesses that a girl in his class made fun of the shirt, everyone laughed, and he’ll never wear it again.
A. Try to explain why she would be so mean. (Did you hear her parents are getting a divorce?)
B. Tell him some people are just idiots and to ignore her because she’s not worth it?
C. Try to make him feel better by suggesting she has a crush on him and that’s the only way she knows to flirt?
If you choose A, you clearly value empathy and want to pass that to your son. If you choose B, you want to help him be stronger and less sensitive to careless criticism. If you choose C, you want to give him a compliment to balance whatever damage that girl did to his ego. All of these are noble. These are natural responses and they are rooted in good intention.
They are also ineffectual, sadly. In both these cases, before parents can help fix things, they must first be sure they are fixing the right things.
You really can’t know why other kids behave badly.
If a girl is teasing your son, it could be that she is mean because of the stresses in her life. It could be that she’s just a jerk. It could be that she has a crush on him. You don’t know, and not knowing makes correcting her behavior at the root nearly impossible. But even if you did know, you’d have little power to change her. Sure, you may be able to force her compliance in public, but in the transitional spaces of school – the hallways, cafeterias, bus rides, and locker rooms, no one is on duty to police her morality. I know, it’s not fair when people get away with being mean. And that’s about all we can say about that.
When parents rush to solve problems by trying to fix other people’s behavior, they set their kids up for a long, frustrating, painful battle. Teaching good behavior to other people’s kids is often couched as accountability – which it can be when you don’t have a personal stake in it.
If the neighborhood kids are running amock on an elderly neighbor’s lawn, and I walk out to talk with them about being more considerate, I hope I’m teaching them a life lesson about respect. But when parents talk about changing the way kids behave in relation to their own child, it’s often charged with getting justice, not inspiring moral development.
So what’s a parent to do? We all want to help our children recover from encounters with mean people. If we can’t “fix them,” what’s our recourse?
Fix your own feelings, not other people’s behavior.
Adults waste a lot of time coaching kids to fix other people. So try this instead: the next time your child is suffering, rather than focusing your efforts on changing other people, ask your child how that person makes him feel. (Don’t leave. I’m not about to get all woo-woo on you.) You may hear words like “mad, furious, jealous, sad, lonely.” This feeling is the only sure thing your child can fix in this situation.
“I understand,” you say. “It’s perfectly normal to feel angry in this situation. What could you do to feel better?” Listen with a neutral face – this is key –as he lists out all the things he could do to feel better. The less emotionally invested you appear, the more your kid will keep talking. Keep the focus on fixing the feelings, not the other kid. One of the powers mean people have over us more sensitive types is they can make us feel helpless. Beating your head against a wall trying to get other people to change only makes you feel more so. But, by taking active steps to feel better on our own, we get our power back.
My friend’s daughter did this. She decided to join a Girl Scout troop outside of school to make new friends. Your son might decide to play some basketball, download some new songs, read a book, or put his Storm Trooper shirt back on and ask you to watch Star Wars with him. When he gets back to school, he may decide to ignore that girl who teased him, to confront her next time, or to ask her to school dance. The point is, he’s deciding what’s going to make him feel better and you’re not swooping in to fix his classmate. Whatever step he takes, he’ll feel less helpless for being proactive and he’ll have learned a valuable skill that will carry him throughout his life.
Mean people will always exist. Best not to spin our wheels trying to get them to change, when we could be doing lots of things that make us happy instead.
Michelle Icard is the author of Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years. Her web site is Michelle in the Middle.
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