No doubt you have seen or heard about the school programs or public service announcements that talk about inclusiveness and the kid who has no one to sit with at lunch, or the new kid who does not seem to be making friends easily, gets picked on, or even the kid who may be different than everyone else. These programs are designed to motivate children to become more connected and compassionate, and I am a huge fan of them. Preventing isolation among certain students in schools increases kindness and understanding, and makes schools a safer and more rewarding experience for everyone.
I have attended the assemblies where various groups talk about this issue, and have even shed a tear during the videos that show a child or group of children inviting an isolated child to sit with them during lunch, or kids rallying behind another student being bullied. I have looked around and seen middle-schoolers rapt attention to the presenters, and I am convinced that they agree with the message given. But I have also noticed something else – a gap between the message and its implementation.
Here’s why: The video shows a child in need of an ally, and everyone feels so good about the person or people who invited that child to sit with them at lunch or give them a friendly hello. Well guess what? That child never seems to show up at our child’s school. The child in the video seems quiet and maybe a bit plain, but no one would describe them as that unusual. And as hard as this is to say, our kids can find the “real” kids at school to be odd or even make our kids feel uncomfortable.
I saw this first-hand. My daughter had many versions of these programs in her schools, and was always very moved, wanting to help other kids out. In the midst of this, she came home one afternoon and told me about a boy in her grade that got picked on that day. I asked her if anyone stuck up for him, and wasn’t this exactly what the video had talked about? Her reply made me realize I had missed a HUGE component here. She said “it’s different, he stares at the girls and sucks on the straps of his backpack.”
We might feel terrible saying this, but the truth is that there are kids at our children’s school who can seem difficult to be around. So our kids don’t associate the hypothetical kid in the video with these kids. The kid in the video seems plain and unpopular, but once they come over to the table and get to talking with everyone, they all realize how much they have in common and get along just fine. The real kid might not speak at all, or might say odd or inappropriate things that scare the other kids. Our kids might be looking right past this kid to be on the lookout for the kid in the video – the one who is just waiting for the invitation to be included in a group and will all become fast friends.
Perhaps even harsher is the reality that there are probably kids that you’ve seen that you wouldn’t want to be around your child. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that we have either heard stories about them that concern us, or we just get an uncomfortable feeling from them.
So how do we bridge the gap? Naming names. As parents, we have to pick up where the videos and assemblies leave off. It doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend that our children don’t know who the outcasts are. And kids don’t make the connection between outcast and peer in need of kindness. Ask them who seems to have the hardest time at school, regardless of whether they like this person or not. They will have plenty to say about the quirks, oddities, and unpleasantness of this person. When I have these conversations with my daughter, I always cover the following bases:
-You don’t have to be friends with anyone you don’t want to be friends with, but you may NEVER be unkind to anyone
-If you see someone being picked on, it is your job to do something about it, whether you like this person or not
-If you pass by someone you don’t care for in the hall, class, or outside, I expect you to at the very least make eye contact and smile at them. It would be really nice if you said “Hi (insert name here)”
Talk to your children about who specifically are the children that have difficulty fitting in at their school, and ask why they believe this is the case. Are they super shy? Do they seem scary? Quirky? Could they have special needs? Make sure they know that you are not making fun of any child, and they should not go back to school saying that your family talked badly about another child. This is for family information only, and only being discussed because you want to make sure that your child understands that no one deserves to be treated badly, no matter their social status or differences.
Once this is out in the open, you can do a whole lot more to promote compassion and understanding for these kids. You can make a targeted plan of action, rather than a vague non-specific reference to being nice to everyone. Who should you make an effort to smile at and say hello to? Who could use someone to introduce them around? Who seems to be getting picked on a lot, worthy of informing teachers or the guidance counselor? Doing the right thing and being a “nice” kid isn’t a one size fits all proposition.
When we talk about other kids, my daughter knows that at some point I will say “it’s not a matter of IF you should do something, it’s a matter of WHAT you will do.” From setting an example among her friends and smiling at someone she may not care for to never being a bystander while someone is bullied to trying to build a friendship with someone new, there is always some form of kindness that kids can extend to one another, but sometimes they need our guidance to get them started and show them that there are different ways to go about it.
So keep supporting the public services, assemblies, and videos. They do a great job and are well worth the effort. But take it further by discussing the issues that directly affect your children once you get home, and use the specific knowledge that you have to benefit your community, your school, and your child.
Disclaimer: Someone who is mean to your children is a whole different story. I’m not suggesting that a child who is a bully fits into this topic- that is a subject for another post!