I can vouch for the fact that 2020 has not been a five-star experience as an adult. At my age, I understand that life is not fair (obviously I also know that no one will stop me from throwing a temper tantrum or two though). But, have you looked at 2020 through the eyes of your kids?
If you’re like our family, the year was going to be hard enough by uprooting them again to PCS, but to PCS without ever saying goodbye to friends of three years? To move to a completely foreign place and not have the usual opportunities to make friends? To watch school districts dance between virtual school and in-person school for the 2020-21 school year, wondering when they might get to make a friend? My heart just breaks for them, and unfortunately, there isn’t much I can do to fix it.
But I did what I could. That meant enrolling them in a weeklong, half-day, outdoor and socially distanced summer camp in July and huddling up with parents to coordinate small playdates or safe use of online chats and gaming throughout the summer. And, my husband and I have made a huge decision financially to opt for private school — because the school has smaller class sizes, it had the luxury of returning in-person full-time in August.
My kids, probably just like yours, have missed other kids (not that we aren’t loads of fun to be around as parents; we totally are). But it wasn’t until meeting with their new principal ahead of the first day of school that I realized: socially distancing kids, specifically in school and their activities (sports, clubs, dance, basket weaving, whatever) has taken away all the great, some might say “normal,” parts of childhood, but it hasn’t necessarily sheltered our kids from the bad.
Our kids’ principal told us that when they had to move online in the spring of 2020, they did so effortlessly and without the bullying issues between the students online that some of the public schools faced. Thank goodness for that mask on my face because there was no way my mouth wasn’t hanging open in shock when he said that. I pictured my own kids desperate to socialize, then being bullied in a classroom chat. I consider our family very lucky that on top of everything else 2020 gave our kids, being bullied in virtual school wasn’t on the list, but think for a minute how easily it could happen.
After that conversation, I felt hyperaware of interactions my kids had with each other, with kids at their summer camp, with friends who would come over and play, and virtually through a messenger app or through the gaming system headset. “Did my son just raise his voice with his friend?” “Is he being too bossy?” “Is my daughter’s shyness coming off as rude?”
Our kids were taught the golden rule early, but I feared they were out of practice and ill-equipped to handle social interactions in a different setting. Socializing has become something of a delicacy this year, and I did not want A) My kids ruining a chance at fun for another kid, or B) A social opportunity to be ruined for my kids because another child was bullying.
Bully Prevention at Home: 2020 Version
What can we do to ensure that the few shots our kids have at socializing the remainder of this year are positive? It’s probably not what tired parents want to hear (speaking as a tired parent), but it’s going to take some extra effort.
- We need to be nosy. Eavesdrop on those classroom chats or conferences. Listen in on the one side of the video game headset conversations we can hear. Our kids will hate it, but tough. They don’t like broccoli either, but I make them eat that.
- We need to step in when it’s warranted. My husband and I take turns marching down the stairs to the basement to tell our naturally bossy son to cool it on the video games. We know he isn’t a mean kid at his core, but bossiness can be considered bullying if it carries on long enough. So, we tell him something along the lines of “You’ll be a team player or you’ll turn it off,” or “You wouldn’t talk to your friend like that face-to-face, so don’t do it online.” This goes for school and in-person activities as well. “Don’t talk over your classmates,” “Support your teammates,” “Be kind to your friends.”
- It’s also well worth your time to stay ahead of any issues by keeping open lines of communication between you and your kids, your children’s teachers and their friends’ parents. Because if my child is being hurtful to another, I want to know about it. Likewise, if my child is ever bullied, the communication lines are already open to address it with involved adults.
- We need to set examples. Anyone else have their phone with them at all times? We’re always connected. I don’t let my kids read over my shoulder or listen in on my calls all the time, but sometimes I share funny or caring things that friends or family say and how I respond, or I let them pop into the conversation and sort of coach them through when they need it. And the example-setting doesn’t have to be strictly virtual. We have a very sarcastic household. Very. Whenever there is any doubt, (and I know this because one of my kids inevitably says “stop fighting” or “be nice”), my husband and I make sure to clarify that we are just joking with each other.
- We need to be clear. Both of my kids have been known to play the victim (like Oscar-worthy) when it benefits them. My kids both know that when they are wronged, I will be their advocate, but I always want the whole story before I get involved. Nine times out of 10, the issue is “We were joking around, but then so-and-so hurt my feelings.” That is not a bully situation to me. Now, if someone puts them down verbally more than once, makes them fearful when approached, or ever physically harms them, that is a different story. It’s hard to understand the difference when you’re young, so I have no problem repeating myself here. I want them to grow up into adults that don’t let every stick or stone break their bones, but I also want them to grow up knowing they are incredible — and no one has the right to make them feel otherwise.
So much of 2020 has happened at home, and that’s where bully prevention has to start. I know we’re tired from the countless adjustments throughout the year, and if you’re like me, there was definitely a “there are no rules” vibe to the spring and summer. But we can’t get lazy on the bully prevention just because this school year looks different than anything we’ve ever seen. Have the talks that make them roll their eyes. Ask the nagging questions. Be present. And force them to do the right thing every time.
The 2020-21 school year is going to be one they talk about to their kids and grandkids one day for a lot of reasons, and if we each do our part behind the scenes, bullying doesn’t have to be part of the narrative.