Fighting bullies with kindness. And okay, a little bit of sarcasm.

I have two sensitive girls–well, one in particular–and I’m not sure that I’d have it any other way. Still, kindness and empathy have this flip side, and so I have to teach them not to take every slight as a horrible insult, and to grow slightly thicker skin when the boy who is the third biggest troublemaker in class tells you your artwork is ugly.

I usually try to give them vaguely cheeky, if insightful and age-appropriate responses to use, so they feel more empowered.

In preschool, when I was horrified to learn that mean girls had already started to infiltrate their lives in small ways, they learned to say “talk to the hand.” (What? It’s funny coming from a white three year-old, 15 years after it lost its coolness factor!) If a girl said “you’re a poopyhead….” Talk to the hand.

I was pretty proud of myself for that one, even if every childhood expert author would sit me down and give me a good talking to. But unfortunately, our little trick stopped working when they got a little older so I’ve been forced to get creative again.

Last night I heard about one seven-year-old boy in particular who crosses the line frequently from teasing into the mean stuff that makes you wonder if he’s got some big brother at home beating the crap out of him every night. But then, I was informed, it may appear that this boy “is in love with me” as one of my girls suggested. They weren’t quite sure–because the boy who told her about his affections is the second biggest troublemaker in the class, but sometimes the first biggest, so it’s hard to know if he’s telling the truth or causing trouble.

It was decided, after some assessment of the facts, that he was telling the truth. Yay. Because I’m so happy my little girls are already expected to understand why boys torture you when they like you.

I tried to talk to them about boys and crushes and immaturity. About brain development and self-expression and why some kids can’t sit still and uh, then I lost them completely. I clearly did not major in child psychology in college.

So I told my girl to repeat after me:

I understand that you’re a boy and boys mature more slowly than girls and so you do not have the words to express your true feelings about me so instead you’re acting in ways that will make me pay attention to you. And I forgive you.

Then I told them to walk away.

Not surprisingly, they couldn’t quite commit the whole thing to memory.

But there was something about the ending–I forgive you, then walk away–that they really liked. I mean, what second grade bully would even know how to respond if he tells you your short story sounds like a dog pooped it onto the table and then ate it and then pooped it out again and you respond, “I forgive you,” stealing his chance to have the last word?

So we adapted it to something a little quicker, with just a wee bit more fun to it. You know, 10% less Jesus and 10% more New Yorker.

“From now on,” I told them,” If someone says something mean to you, just say have a nice day, smile and walk away.”

We practiced. We practiced more. I said silly/mean things to them and they responded, HAVE A NICE DAY! and walked into the other room and rolled with giggles, ready to head back to school in the morning for a chance to try it out.

I think we could be onto something here.


51 thoughts on “Fighting bullies with kindness. And okay, a little bit of sarcasm.”

  1. I love it! Unexpected, a little sarcastic (ok maybe a lot), plus it makes them feel empowered. If only I had learned that as a child it would have saved me a lot of heartache.

      1. I think it is clear that you realize you can’t stop the heartache of someone being mean, but you are giving them the tools that will make it all more manageable.

        I love the simplicity of your message.

        Just so you know, as a mom of 2 your just as much an expert as the “experts.” Maybe even more so–you know your kids best.

  2. As a mom of a grade 2 girl who also wears her heart on her sleeve, this is just brilliant! Grade 2 seems to be a time of noticing who and what are different – and then making fun of it. Or calling it weird.

    This response of “have a nice day” would work with the grown up kind too that you run into on occasion at pick up and drop off. Just sayin’…

  3. That’s great! Very turn the other cheek.

    My husband explained to my daughter on the playground the other day about boys acting awful when they like someone, and had her watch how the boys in front of them playing only seemed to get the attention of their mothers when they acted out or did something bordering on bad. He told her it was kind of the same thing, and it was what they knew worked.

    When my middle child came to me a few years ago worried about people laughing at her we decided to go with having her say, “Jealous?” and then walk away. But when she practiced it she wound up going with, “Nervous?” which I liked even better, frankly.

  4. I’m curious what the experts say.

    I like your approach and think it could work with the lone bully. In the case of a pack of mean girls though, I could see them turning it into taunt or something to make fun of. But maybe that is just my high school haunting me.

    1. There is always a taunt to be made or a name to be turned into an insult. I can’t change kids; only how my kids react to it.

  5. LOL I love this. There was a conversation in my twitter feed about 6 yr old bullies and the adult responses horrified me. Most had the “let’s string the little asshole up from the nearest tree” mentality and then started trashing the parents. Let’s be honest here, the child was SIX YEARS OLD. Not a high schooler. Little kids, like you pointed out, don’t always have the words to express their feelings. Maybe they have a brother/parent beating the crap out of them at home. Maybe a parent is a drunk and they had to get their own dinner last night or had none at all. Maybe they struggle to read. And then when they hear another warm, well fed, nicely dressed child crow about how they went to X for their party, or how they find reading easy, they resent the kid. Usually at that age, resentment comes out with smacking someone or saying something mean. Little kids have no self control, and it’s up to us to not only teach them that, but to have a little empathy. Sure it doesn’t mean our kids should be at their mercy, but then teaching them how to be empowered and yet not cruel back is a huge life lesson, and one that some adults could also re-learn.

    I’ll get off my soapbox now. Love your blog. 🙂

    1. Oh trust me – I think there are kids who are flat out assholes at 6 and that really sucks. But my job first is to teach my kids how to deal with them in a way they can feel proud of. I can still whisper “asshole” about those kids behind their backs.

    2. This is a good reminder, and I do remind my kids of this as well. A lot of times when kids are jerks, it stems from instability and pain in their lives. Many of the children at our school do not have the stable home life that my kids have. Many have never learned empathy or kindness from the parents in their lives. It doesn’t completely excuse bad behavior, but discussing this with my kids can take some of the sting away from an unkindness.

    3. Thanks, Scatteredmom, for your take on this. I also cringe when I read or hear of parents so quick to assail “the bully.” In a school forum on bullying a few years back, I remember watching a film clip that had captured even some of the “good” kids saying outrageous things to other teens, to the surprise and horror of their parents. Anybody’s kid is capable of making the mean choice, at least some of the time.

      I have a son (now a teen) who was one of the kids in his elementary-school class that other parents commented about behind my back (rarely bringing the issues to me, sadly). A kid with two loving parents who were working to do the best we could with a more-challenging kid. I felt that the parents with the easy kids were too quick to condemn the rest of us for our supposed lousy parenting (and this is a small town and a small school where we all know each other), instead of trying to have a helpful dialogue about how to support the rougher-edged kids to be better student-citizens and empower the picked-on kids. A “rougher” kid does not always mean a hard home life….it can mean that the kid’s own personal internal wiring and chemistry makes it harder for them to make the best choices all the time. The condemnation that can often come down on the family just increases the isolation they are likely already feeling.

      Long story short, the public-school staff did an awesome job working with the kids, so that the parent complaints pretty much evaporated by 5th grade. The 5th and 6th grade teachers often remarked on how kind the kids were to each other. And today my son has matured into a lovely young man—polite, respectful, a straight-A student who is a valued member of his sports’ teams, does public service and is kind to young kids and elderly women. Like, who knew?

      All kids deserve our support, even the tough ones. They’re just kids, after all. Which isn’t to say that bullying behavior should be tolerated—just taken in context. What worked so well in my son’s school was that the staff took the incidents seriously, but nobody was made out to be a “bad” kid. It was simply viewed as a problem to be solved, and, if the first solution didn’t work, on to the next!

      And yes, I love the catchy comebacks!

  6. Nice! This brought back memories of conversations with my mom as a kid. I think she actually suggested breaking out into song at one point, to freak the mean kid out. Moms solve huge problems every single day, right?

  7. Telling boys that they are more immature, don’t have the words to express themselves and that they are forgiven…as the mom of boys I am going to guess your girls might need to use these words for say, 10, 20 years or so?

  8. Passed along to Missy (3 boys) and Barrie (1 boy) so they have an idea what’s going on in the other part of the world……..and to Cynthia (3 older girls) so she can think back and smile. Frankly, you are on to something for every age.

  9. I love it. My 7 year old son is so oblivious, but my almost 5 year old daughter wears her heart on her sleeve also. I’ll teach her “I forgive you” and to walk away too. I was bullied as a kid and I’m still scarred by some of the things that happened, but I don’t want her to be.

  10. OK, can you now write some less jesus more new yorker advice on how young girls can deal with bullies who are other girls? Because this was WAY better advice than the books I’ve been reading.

    Hope things go ok!

    1. Think any publishers are up for
      “The Non-Expert’s Guide to Totally Made-Up Parenting Tips That Will Possibly Work?”

      Because I can do that!

  11. I love this approach for in-person bullying. But I am struggling with the Email/Gchat bullying that I know will find its way online sooner than I’m ready for our soon-to-be 13-year-old. I’m lucky that my sensitive girl has so far gotten thru the mean elementary school stuff & has developed an attitude to ignore the middle-school stuff

  12. Years ago, I taught mine to say, it’s been lovely chatting with you and then walk away. It’s worked pretty well actually.

    1. Awesome! I have used that myself.

      I have even used it with some of the less savory bloggers and trolls of the world. It works there too. Or at least it annoys them which is its own sort of resolution.

  13. I still remember bullying incident from my elementary age, when group of boys was following us, group of girls, on our way home, with constant teasing and pestering. At some point, I suggested for all of us to split and run in different directions, and boys will be left with no target. That is what happened and I got home safely and quietly. But tomorrow in school, I learned that rest of the girls gave up on running after 10 meters, collected again into a group and continued giggling and looking over their shoulders. So bullying escalated into near-physical and quite a few of them came home in tears. I was the only one who tough that bullies never had control over me.

    Teaching kids that there are options to say “You are no BOSS of mine” in awkward teasing situations is what diminishes minor bullies. Not successful for flat-out, full-blown bullying, but for lower elementary – plenty of power. And doing it with that kind of flair (kindness and sarcasm all in one) – it is sure recipe for confident kids how will stand up for themselves (and others) in cases where bullying is problem. I would buy your “parenting tips” book in a heartbeat.

    Now, excuse me while I run home to teach my sensitive son very cool way to respond to daily teasing.

  14. Forget my kids, I will use this! Even at 38 years old, there are still mean girls out there (heck, I work with one) and I like having a way to respond that isn’t mean (not my style) but still shuts them down. Thanks!

  15. That’s the toughest part: teaching them to NOT take the bait. Now….what to do when they’re in reading groups, not supposed to get up out of their chairs, and your kid is getting kicked in the shins under the table by the boy.

    Got any for that?

    1. Why wouldn’t you tell them to politely raise their hand to ask the teacher if they could move somewhere where “Johnny” isn’t close enough to kick me under the table? Maybe tell them not to do it loud enough to humiliate them in from of everyone else (if they fear retaliation) but loud enough that the bully knows they’re not going to put up with his antics.

      1. I’m not sure being the “tattler” is much better than being the kicker. In my daughter’s kindergarten, the rule is first ask the kid to please stop _______ing me. If they don’t stop then you are allowed to ask the teacher for help.

        I like that the first course of action is to try and resolve it yourself.

        1. What I advised her to do was to approach the teacher AFTER class and say, “When we’re in reading groups, _____ is kicking me in the shins under the table. I’ve asked him to stop, but he won’t. May I please be seated somewhere else? It’s making it difficult to do my work.”

          He’s also whispering in her ear that she’s “stupid” and he steals the other kids’ pencils, so we have a larger problem here, me thinks.

          1. Oh geez I’m sorry. While so many people here make points about showing sympathy and understanding towards bullies, it really does test you when it’s your kid who’s coming home upset about it. I hope you find a solution soon.

            1. When I was a freshman in HS, the boy who sat next to me in English class decided to torture me. He was extremely popular, and I was extremely shy. It was only in class, and seriously, in the grand scheme of things, minor bullying. But it was mortifying and I dreaded going to class every day. I asked the teacher to move my seat and she said she’d think about it. A week or so later, he made an extra-nasty comment to me, and while I was looking around, hoping nobody else had heard, I caught the teacher laughing about it.

              The teacher isnt’ always the answer, either, unfortunately.

  16. I feel like in every generation there’s a new way we come up with to handle bullies in every age group. It’s like they never go away. They can be as young as 4 and as old as 90. Just thinking about it frustrates the hell out of me.

    It’s also interesting that the advice teachers, parents, and friends give to different genders are different as well. On top of that there are also ways to handle a single bully and a way to handle a group of them (although they’re usually in packs with a ringleader, and a few bystanders who want the ringleader’s approval). I envy people who figure out ways to get a bully to stop completely. Honestly, I’m still figuring it out sometimes. When I was a kid, I either tried putting my distance between them, or said something so harsh that I think they thought I went momentarily crazy. There’s some sort of middle ground I’m finding with each bully I meet – although it’d be nice to never deal with them again. A girl can dream…

  17. My mom always taught us to kill them with kindness. If someone is bullying you be nice to them and they will get snnoyed and eventually leave you alone cuz you are no fun to bully. It had always worked for me, in school and at work.

  18. Sounds like a plan to me! I was tortured by a group of girls for months in sixth grade, who always had something to say about the way that I dressed. Many of my pants were too short for me, and I wore knee socks underneath, so “Why don’t you pull up your socks a little higher, Sharon? Why don’t you pull up your pants a little higher, Sharon?” was a familiar refrain. I learned to adjust my style (never paid any attention at all to what I was wearing until forced to) and they backed off a bit, but one day I was stuck with a too-small pair of pants, because that was what was clean, and brightly colored socks. As I walked past a pair of them, I knew I’d hear something about it, but that time, I was ready. “Nice socks, Sharon,” they sneered. I stopped in place, gave them a big smile, said, “Thanks!” and went on my way. I still remember the looks on their faces, to this day.

  19. My oldest is in pre-K – and there is one boy that doesn’t keep his hands to himself, and several parents are already complaining that he is a bully. I have talked to my son about how to handle the situation, and they seem to not mind (really not notice each other) most of the time.

    But I do feel for the boy – he is only four, and I will be curious to see how his parents address it over time. We are going to be in school with him for the next 14 years.

  20. Perfect!! We’ve tried similar tactics with my sons, by telling them to “agree” with the bullying…so for example, if a bully says, “you’re a wimp” we tell them to say, “I know…right?!!” with a big smile and excited face. It basically screws with the bully’s head (reverse psychology) and they have no idea how to reply after that. And if that doesn’t work, I won’t even tell you what my husband says to do…he’s old school for sure but also boy bullying tends to be more physical and less emotional! Oy!

  21. This is great, Liz. I really don’t know how I will handle it when my kids are school-aged and are being teased. But you know, the idea of “forgiving” someone who is mean is something we could all keep in our back pocket. Happy thanksgiving.

  22. Laughing at this. And totally going to use it.

    My daughter had to get glasses a few weeks ago and after she got them my husband and I put her through glasses ‘boot camp’, where we thought up every insult a kid might say and then had her come up with a comeback for it. It ended up being pretty hilarious and I did teach her one ‘big red button, only use in case of dire emergency’ retort.

    In the end her glasses were a total non-event and most of the kids thought they were pretty cool. But I guess if I want to get philosophical about it, it was a lesson in standing up for herself and not taking people’s thoughtless comments to heart.

  23. My mother always told me to remember two, very important things about my tormentors: “Those kids are all very sad. It’s not easy living with hemorrhoids and large festering sores.”

  24. I really hate bullies! Bullying is obviously not healthy to those being bullied. For me, this is one of the meanest action that does not only hurt the physical aspect of a person but also his emotionally aspect in a greater degree. I recommend getting a psychological help.

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