I turned around to see our eight-year old, Charlie, goofing around with some friends in our mini-van on a group playdate. They were clearly in a great mood, with laughter emerging at the slightest of sound out of any of their mouths. Then, one of them innocently grabbed his tongue and began to try and speak. Instantly, the car erupted with laughter as they all tried to hold their tongues while speaking.
While I knew this was purely innocent child’s play, and these boys are all a wonderful bunch, I began to frown as I listened to them all, our son included. Out of context, their playful actions reminded me of the sound someone might make if they were mentally disabled or perhaps simply speech-impaired. I quickly made a mental note to speak to Charlie before bed. I wanted him to appreciate that although I know they were just kidding around, and I appreciate they are only second-graders, that to a third-party listener it might appear as if they were making fun of someone. Even with the most harmless of intentions, this type of behavior was not right.
To my surprise, it was Charlie who burst out unexpectedly. “Guys! We need to stop doing that. It sounds like a kid that has autism or something.” At first, the boys continued, most likely thinking Charlie was joking. But he meant it. “C’mon. I mean it. We sound like we are being mean.” His voice had turned serious. There was a momentary pause, and then within seconds, the kids all began to laugh together at something they had seen on television recently. I was beyond floored, and particularly proud. Later that evening over dinner and in front of his brother and sister, I would describe the scene and praise him for his response. Not only did our second grader have the moral compass, he had the confidence to stand his ground, knowing that he didn’t have to participate in something he knew felt wrong.
When I decided to pursue the Kids Flaunt writing competition earlier this year on my Don’t Hide It Flaunt It site, one of the conversations that inspired me the most was with our fabulous friend Sheila. I had been discussing the Safe School Improvement Act with her and she reminded me that most kids are not the victims of a bully themselves, they are the bystanders that don’t believe it could ever happen to them. They may not be the victims of cruelty, but they are likely to witness it.
It was in this context that I noted a recent article posted by the awesome global inclusiveness campaign, “Everyone Matters,” about a 15-year-old teenager named Michael Boggan. According to the article, Boggan had been led to the backyard of a nearby house by a bunch of teenagers that he knew from school. Within a matter of seconds, Boggan caught and held a device he believed to be a golf ball, thrown in his direction. That “ball” instantly exploded in his hands. According to the article, Boggan, who suffers from Asperger Syndrome (a form of autism) was singled out and purposefully misled so that he would be holding the ball, actually a crude explosive, when it detonated. The resulting impact to Boggan’s body was harsh. Rushed to the hospital for emergency nine-hour surgery, he survived but is left only a finger on his left hand and a thumb on his right, in addition to shrapnel wounds all over his body. According to reports, “The perpetrator was another teen Michael had known for years who had always been a bully to him. Other teens were also present in the backyard, boasting about the golf ball all morning.” Although only one teen threw the “ball” at Michael, the other teens stood by and watched. Beyond the horrific events that unfolded and were described in detail, the following from Michael’s step-dad really caught my attention:
“These teenagers have no moral compass.”
Michael’s step-dad then began to describe his regrets about the day and how it could have ended with a differing result. “He went out to play and I just keep thinking about the ‘what-ifs.’ What if I had made him stay home and do the housework. What if I had done this and I had done that. It may not have happened.”
Appreciating how easy it is for anyone to retreat to a series of what-if’s…. I believe they are sadly pointless. I would prefer to think about the “what-can’s.” Having experienced my own child being bullied and the subject of cruel names (“monster” comes to mind…), I ask myself, “What can be done” and most importantly, “What can I do?” Although there is no one answer, I am certain that my husband John and I need to develop a moral compass for our own children, helping them to learn how to stand-up for what they believe is right, even if it is the unpopular stance. In this regard, I feel like my boys (born with my condition) embrace this concept perhaps more organically than others, based on their own life experience. But I certainly need to reinforce it in them and also ensure Savanna, born without any physical difference, develops her own high standard of morality paired with the confidence to not always follow the pack.
Even as Michael Boggan’s story tears at my heart, it inspires me to focus on the types of things I can do to ensure that my kids are the ones who both recognize right from wrong, and also have the strength to do the right thing in a difficult situation. But how? I try to identify those moments where I can help nurture empathy in my children. I think the key is to make the victim relatable. Sometimes I even offer advice along the same lines when asked. For example, a mother who follows my blog contacted me recently for guidance. Although her story had nothing to do with bullying, her child had become extremely upset at the sight of people who look different. Here’s what I advised:
Try reverse ‘role playing’ with her. In other words, pick something about her (ANYTHING-hair color even) and tell her you want to show her what it feels like to be on the other end of her fear. Then, act afraid/upset etc. about her difference. Let her feel what it’s like to be the object of someone’s fear or disgust. Within a week I learned that the child had let go of her fears and instead, tapped into the compassionate person that was always there in the first place.
While I don’t always role play with my kids, I do look for any opportunity to remind them that everyone feels, just like they do. It’s my way of helping them develop their own moral compass. It’s my way of ensuring that they fully appreciate that everyone does matter.
If you would like to read more from me about the type of role-playing methodology I have used with my own children, please read my article, “Involve Me and I Learn.“