I was bullied in kindergarten on my first day.  When I went to the playground at recess, I was approached by Maria (kinda not her real name) who told me that the class had chosen a new game.  She was a very tall girl, and I was a very small boy so I listened with quite a bit of respect.  “We’re playing Indians and butterfly,” she told me with what appeared to be the entire class behind her.  “You mean, ‘cowboys and Indians?'” I asked.  [Forgive my not using the term “Native Americans.” It was 1970.] No, she told me.  I was the butterfly–on hindsight probably a reflection of my slight, one might say “waifish”, frame–and the class was made up of the Indians.  Indians loved to hunt butterflies, so the job was for them to catch me.

I’m not sure what would have happened if they actually caught me, but because I was so skinny I made a fairly fast runner, and recess was over before they got me.  In the car at pickup my mother asked how my day had been. I told her my story in my usual dramatic way, and she listened.  She didn’t dwell on the event.  She moved on with questions about what I did in the classroom: the coloring, the writing lessons.

The next day she picked me up after the insect hunt.  She had a Golden Book for me.   It was a book on Native American culture entitled simply “Indians.”  “I talked to your father before we bought this.  We figured that maybe if you study up on how to be an Indian, you won’t be a butterfly anymore.” After having the book read to me that night, I took my new found knowledge to Maria.  “You’re not doing it right,” I said to her.  “Indians don’t chase butterflies.  In fact, they used to hunt big animals like buffalo.  I don’t look like a buffalo.”  Maria and members of my class learned an important lesson which many of them took with them through thirteen years of being my colleague at that school: Jeff gets really boring after he does his research.  They chose to walk away and play kickball.

Was I bullied?  I’d say yes if you go by the Google definition as, “use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants.”  They never hurt me, and I really believe they could have, that angry five year old mob.  However, they used the power of numbers to intimidate me into being their entertainment.  This incident was the beginning of many bullying incidents far worse than being chased around the playground.  Most of these I kept secret, not wanting to admit male weakness to even my parents.  The fear I learned was funneled into a self-deprecating humor, and eventually was dealt with to some degree (nothing ever goes away for good, right?) when I studied to be a therapist.

What impresses me the most in reflection was my parents’ reaction to the event.  They chose not to go to the teacher, not to stress over my unhappiness, not to panic at the label their son might be receiving.  They chose to teach me that education would provide me with alternative courses of action, and that I could prepare myself to be a self advocate.  The lesson was clear.  I didn’t understand it as “you have to change to be what they want you to be.” I learned it as “you must adapt yourself instead of expecting society to adapt to you.”

Charles Murray in an interesting short article questions if bullying can actually teach the bullied important life skills.  I don’t believe my parents’ decision not to get too involved is fitting in every situation.  In my profession, I hear of stories all the time in which kids kill themselves instead of facing the constant abuse of power hungry peers. Parents have a tough job, and sometimes they have to advocate for their children when the child has been emotionally or physically battered to the extent that they can’t advocate for him/herself.  In my parenting life, I’ve had to go in for the dreaded principal conference over bullying done toward my child.  But I’ve also witnessed my child become stronger and work her hardest to befriend the bully.  Her efforts were amazingly successful.

I also see bullying in the behaviors of parents and adults.  Anytime we use our power to intimidate or try to show intimidation, we’re teaching our kids that bullying may be necessary.  Anytime we use our power in parenting as an idle threat instead of using our firmness as a directive tool, we are showing them that bullying is at sometimes necessary.  And when we teach our kids that they are too weak to stand up to the bully, we are teaching them to be victims forever.