Three years ago our oldest child came home from school upset because he was teased by a classmate. He said that a boy was calling him names like "shrimp" and "small fry". At nine years old, he was wearing a size 6 slim and had to look up at most of his classmates. I tried to console him and explained that he is in fact small for his age and that he should ignore it. I hoped that would be the end of the issue, but it wasn't.
Caleb came home with a new story about being tormented almost daily. Soon, it wasn't just one boy teasing him, but several. The ring-leader wasn't in Caleb's class, so the boys were only together once a week in the gifted program. It wasn't long before the gifted class went from being the highlight of Caleb's week to being a day he dreaded. One day Caleb got into the car and began to cry. The boys who had been teasing him picked up the project Caleb had been working on for weeks and broke it in half. The teacher responded to the incident by giving the boys a minus point. It seemed a rather light punishment, but I thought it would be best to let the teacher handle the situation. Again, I hoped that the tension would blow over without my interference. Again, it didn't. A week later, Caleb asked me about Michael Jackson. I told him a little about Michael Jackson and asked why he wanted to know about him. He said that the ring-leader had been saying that Michael Jackson was a freak. After making several nasty comments about the singer, he started referring to Caleb as "Michael Jackson".
In hindsight, I know that I should have gotten involved sooner. I told myself that "boys will be boys" and it was all just a part of growing up. I was concerned that by stepping in, I would make things worse. I gave Caleb encouragement and advice, hoping he would resolve the issue himself and gain confidence in the process. The last thing I wanted was to have Caleb labeled as a victim and become the target of more bullying, or worse as the kid who needs his Mommy to step in on his behalf. I was also hesitant to be the person responsible for labeling a nine year-old boy as a bully, even though he was bullying my child. After all, Caleb and Ring-leader had been good friends just a year earlier.
I was lucky. My wake up call did not come in a suicide note. My wake up call came late one night when I went into Caleb's room to put clean clothes in his dresser. That day had been the last school day before Spring Break. Caleb was still awake and staring at the wall, lights on, and obviously troubled about something. "Why are you still awake?", I asked. The reply stunned me. Caleb answered in almost a whisper, "I'm afraid that I am going to get beat up; that they are going to hurt me. I can't sleep". Something in me changed in that moment. Instead of looking forward to ten days of going to the beach and sleeping in, this child, my child, was worried about his physical safety at school. I realized in that instant that he was being damaged every time I dropped him off at school. I had allowed this damage to continue for months.
I sat with Caleb for a while trying to reassure and comfort him, but mostly I was listening. I finally heard his sadness and his fear. I finally heard that this situation was not okay and it was not going to blow over. As I reached over to brush his hair out of his face, I found a bald spot on his head. Usually concealed by his bangs, there was a circle of skin where there should have been hair on his head. The worry and anxiety had caused Caleb to start pulling his hair out, and I had not even noticed.
That night I went directly from Caleb's room to my computer. I sent an email to the school counselor assigned to Caleb's class. That year, Spring Break seemed to last a month. When school finally rolled back around, I dropped Caleb off with a promise: We will fix this.
My phone was ringing when I got back home. The counselor had read my email and at her request, I got right back in the car to meet with her. I explained the situation and gave her all the information I had. She sent me home with reading material and a promise: We will fix this.
That afternoon, Caleb climbed into the car and threw his arms around me. "You did it, Mom. It's over.".
And it was. The counselor met with Caleb and then (separately) with the ring-leader. Caleb never had another problem with that student. I have no idea what the counselor did or said, but the teasing and bullying stopped that day.
Of course I was relieved, but I also felt incredibly guilty. I had dropped the ball and as a result, Caleb endured months of torment and anxiety. I had learned a powerful lesson, but I had learned it at my child's expense. If he came home today and told me he was being teased, I would act to put a stop to it before my head hit the pillow. Let my mistake be your lesson. Every child deserves a safe learning environment and every parent shares in the responsibility to provide it.
Jeri Nowlin Shaffer is a Shine Parenting Guru and freelance writer living with her husband and four children in Pensacola, Florida. Read about Jeri's other parenting mistakes on her blog, www.mothering4.com.