>ButterBean put this question to me the other day after ballet practice. Strangely, the moms had just had a conversation about an article one had read on just that topic. The question flew at me from out of the blue. I asked ButterBean where she heard about bullying? She seemed very reluctant to answer. It got me worried. I expect I reacted with my mommy-worry rather than calm and rational mode. Honestly I was surprised she even knew the word.
In the end, it led to a very productive conversation about bullying. It’s something that I’ve had on my mind since my kids started school in Jordan. I expect it would have been on my mind in the US as well. But, kids in Jordan are rougher. The girls have a precocious approach to picking at each other. And, they’re MUCH more physical. So, I worry for ButterBean. She’s so sweet and often will give up something she wants to a classmate who is not even a close friend because they also want whatever it is she’s gotten (bracelet in a particular color,etc.). We’ve had to have many conversations about protecting herself and not giving up something she loves. And she’s shed tears over this.
So, naturally when ButterBean brought up bullying, I was worried. After some conversation (not in the car), we discovered that this came from a book that she had gotten from the library. I have a sense there’s some trigger I’m not in the know on, but… This week she picked a book in Arabic on bullying for her weekly story to read and answer questions. This continuing need to talk about bullying makes me think that she’s trying to process it in some way. My guess is that it doesn’t involve her directly. In fact, knowing her class, I’d bet it’s outside her class. But it does have me wondering.
It got me thinking. Then, today I saw a blog post from a woman to her daughter about bullying. She posted this in the wake of an NYU student killing himself as the result of on-line bullying. This is a trend I can’t relate to. When I was in college, our very forward college had e-mail. Period. Not fancy e-mail, not the Internet. We had e-mail. So, cyberbullying is outside of my realm of experience. Regardless, bullying is bullying.
One of the main lessons that it is vital to teach our children is empathy. In Jordan, this vital skill is undervalued and overlooked. When our KG had an expert come in and talk about empathy, she was hounded on all fronts by one father. He spent the whole time arguing. His first argument was that it doesn’t enough scientific basis… it’s all touchy-feely. The expert offered to provide him with several empirical studies on the topic that had been published in well-respected, refereed journals. His next argument was that it’s a Western idea that doesn’t apply. She referred him to her professional research on the topic and her findings. Finally he used my very favorite argument. We don’t need to talk about empathy because… get this… it is built into Islam so everyone automatically practices it. At that point El 3atal and some of the others finally said, you’re crazy and an idiot if you think that’s the case. Oh, and we came to learn not to hear you argue with the expert, so hush now your turn is over…
However, the insight that gives is interesting… and frightening. The idea that because Islam says something that he perceives to be about empathy, he doesn’t need to teach his kids to be empathetic, well I understand many problems better. Every religion likely holds values that, if followed perfectly, would lead to empathetic followers. And yet, we are all human. None of us, as far I know, are perfect. And frankly, the only way our children are raised with our religious values is if we teach them. We use discipline and gentle correction, loving guidance and teaching points. Without them, our children will not hold our values. In the best case, they’ll hold no values. In the worst case, they’ll hold the world’s values.
It’s funny that when trying to translate the word, the parents all wanted to use different words for the concept of empathy. The one most of them thought of was actually sympathy. This is a common mistake. The difference, though, is vast. Sympathy is feeling FOR someone. When something bad happens, you are sad for your friend. Empathy is feeling WITH them. When something bad happens, your heart hurts with them. These are not at all the same thing.
Clearly I don’t talk to the Beans about empathy in those words. They aren’t meaningful to a young child. What we do talk about is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. In a VERY simple example, we were walking down the street one day a month or so ago and someone with a physical handicap went by. One of the Beans was pointedly staring at them. We stopped short immediately. I explained to them that staring at someone is unacceptable. It is terribly rude. They asked why. I simply said to them, well you are blond and fair, how do you feel when people stare at you? Their answer, a little funny, kind of sad, not good. So I asked them, do you want to make that little boy feel bad like that? It was not the first time we talked about empathy. It won’t be the last by any stretch of the imagination. Yet each teachable moment sets more firmly in their minds, attitudes, and behaviors what our values are. You can call them Christian values, you can call them human values. By any name, they are learning the values that we believe in. We believe in the dignity of humans. We believe in the rightness of respect. We believe in considering others before yourself. And if, by ButterBean shocking me with her talk of bullies, we can solidify that teaching even more, I’m thrilled.
I submit to each of the parents out there that you understand your values and make sure that you are actively teaching them to your children. Make sure that you are surrounding them with adult figures who support that teaching. If their school is one of the many schools I’ve been hearing about recently that claim to have superior Islamic deen teaching but have teachers that hit children, complain and change that system. I assure you that if you think your children will learn that humans deserve dignity and respect by being hit by someone given authority over them… you are deluding yourself. If you don’t yet have children, I submit to you to carefully consider what values you want to instill. Once the child is here is rather late to spend time thinking. You’ll be so tired you won’t be able to think. And know that each adult that you willingly place in your child’s life is teaching them about YOUR values. Take that responsibility seriously. You are the one who determines the values they are instilled with.