“Lipika—who ever heard of such a weird name with all those funny sounds? What is that? Don’t your parents speak English?”
Shar, a distraught mother from Pennsylvania, shared some responses to her American-born daughter’s name, which reflects their heritage. “I never imagined that carrying around this beautiful name would create such a roller coaster of reactions and emotions,” she admitted.
For many kids, getting picked on for a different name is just the beginning, and sadly, harassment and exclusion that used to begin around fifth grade are seen as early as kindergarten, as reported in a recent New York Times article.
Instill a Global Perspective
Just as cultural factors can spur teasing, they also can instill strength. Cultural awareness and global understanding can serve as an antidote to the bullying that seems to have metastasized. In my discussions with thousands of families across the United States, I’ve observed that when parents mindfully instill a global perspective from the earliest age, children tend to display resilience, determination, independence, compassion, inclusiveness and moral courage.
Kids can begin to see beyond the immediate circumstances of cliques and brands to appreciate different people, bigger issues, broader opinions and divergent approaches. Picking on a child because their name is weird, their homemade lunch smells funny, their clothes aren’t cool, their religion is different, their skin is dark or different from their parents’, or they aren’t familiar with TV stars and pop singers just wouldn’t be interesting or worth considering; and if your kid is picked on, or even a bystander, their bigger vision of their place in the world could help them respond with dignity to aggression from peers.
Provide Parental Guidance and Support
Parents can counter mean-girl behavior and bullying with constructive guidance. When we don’t offer what the desired behavior looks like, we are cursing the darkness instead of shining a light. Take the lead in initiating conversations about possibly difficult issues, standing up for what you believe in, and noticing courage, honesty and good judgment. A recent large-scale survey out of Clemson University showed that too many adults weren’t providing the guidance kids needed. Bullying often took place right in the classroom or on a playground, with a teacher or parents present. As the research attests, incidents can fall between the cracks. This reinforces the need for imparting positive virtues as early as possible.
In the case of Lipika, her parents tell her about the history of her name and the proud culture it originates from, offer alternative activities as a family to lessen the sting of her exclusion from social events, and encourage friendships with others who appreciate their culture. They also take the time to discuss how the taunting might bother her and what she can do about it.
Applying global awareness to an issue as distinct as bullying helps contribute to the core values of a thriving family. Try these ten strategies to introduce a global perspective and inoculate against bullying:
- Live the Golden Rule. The simple idea of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is valued by every religion and culture on earth and can be digested by the youngest children. Though simple and universal, it’s poorly practiced. I find that keeping this principle front and center with my children as they grow serves as a continuous exploration of people and relationships. You might want to incorporate other simple mottos in the family. Another favorite: “No room in my heart for prejudice.” The corollary we discuss is: our hearts have room for many friends.
- Unplug. Passive experiences behind a screen limit kids’ active connection with the world. Experts agree, kids mirror what they watch, which is getting snarkier and sexier. Limit screen time, supervise and watch together if possible.
- Talk about your values. Don’t take for granted that your children clearly understand your values if they aren’t regularly articulated.
- Eat! Expose your children to diverse cuisines. Trying kimchee or curry helps open a door to Korea or India, and provides firsthand experience with a classmate’s culture.
- Relate to the larger world. Aggression on the playground can be likened to serious issues on the global stage. Identifying injustice or exclusion far away can help children speak up when they see mistreatment at home.
- Role play. Anne Reenstierna, Head of School at Brimmer and May near Boston, told me, “We spend a lot of time talking about bystanders and speaking up. We role play different scenarios” to put words to feelings and practice appropriate responses. Parents can encourage such role play at home too.
- Make friends. Do your friends include individuals from diverse backgrounds? Do you welcome them to your home or socialize together with your children? Growing up in an open and empathic environment sends a powerful, lasting signal to your children about the value of diversity, without being preachy.
- Get inspired by other kids. Children all over the world have channeled their concerns over injustices to causes that have influenced millions of lives for the better. Ryan’s Well, Free the Children and Roots & Shoots are a few organizations with a global reach, by kids, for kids. These examples can empower my children to make a difference at home.
- Volunteer together. Studies have found that greater bonds form among children who perform acts of service together. This is particularly true when students assist others outside the school setting, and when service takes place in an area with a diverse (or different from the school’s) ethnic or demographic makeup.
- Stay informed. Parents can tap into expert resources like Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, the Mosaic Project, and Teaching Tolerance.
What do you think? How does your family counter bullying and meanness?