For the last month or so, I have followed with interest as the topic of bullying, specifically for kids who are gay (or thought to be gay), has gotten the sort of national conversation it has long deserved. I have also especially appreciated that some homeschool blogs and book blogs have gotten in on the conversation, including Smrt Mama’s great posts about taking her kids to the Pride parade. However, I haven’t really posted anything here because I haven’t felt like I’ve had anything to add to the conversation. Bullying is horrible and it is a rising problem. Bullying over issues of gender and sexuality is especially horrible, in part because it’s often institutionally supported or carried out by parents and other adults as well peers. Bullying is wrong. Parents, teachers and society in general needs to wake up to that. I have been deeply moved by Dan Savage’s brilliant It Gets Better campaign. But I didn’t feel like I had anything to add.
Well, today I’ve got something to add. We went to the playground down the street (not the one contaminated with lead, but the other one… gotta love my neighborhood!). It was midday, so I assumed we’d have the place to ourselves. However, a surprising number of kids started to trickle in soon after we arrived. As usual, there were no other parents around. Immediately, two boys about the same age as BalletBoy started in on his gender. I’ve posted about this before. Occasionally kids get stuck on it and can’t let it go, but for the first time, a kid, who was only five years old, used this to call him gay. BalletBoy and Mushroom decided these kids, who had already been shoving each other into a puddle and threatening each other with sticks, were clearly not kids they wanted to hang around. They went to play on a different part of the playground. Apparently, the two boys followed them and took out a lighter then told BalletBoy they were going to burn his hair. When BalletBoy came to get me, the bullies ran off. I suggested we leave and the kids agreed. I was disgusted, but it wasn’t until after we had left the park that I understood there had been an actual lighter in play.
There’s so many issues here, that I don’t even know if I can tease all the threads apart. There’s the fact that the kids at that park are, for the most part, neglected kids. There’s the fact that this really makes me feel rotten for letting them to basically handle it themselves only to realize that there had been actual weapons involved. There’s the fact that neither of my kids really know what “gay” means (and I seriously doubt the bullies did either). BalletBoy and Mushroom know a number of gay adults, especially at church, where one of their teachers is a lesbian. When gay marriage passed in our city, I seem to recall that they were surprised that previously two men or two women couldn’t get married. However, I’m sure he didn’t understand what the insult even meant and if he had, I don’t think he would have understood it as an insult. There’s the horrible misogyny at assuming that femininity is somehow negative. There’s the sad fact that a 5 year old was already indoctrinated with that homophobia and misogyny. There’s the similarly sad fact that two such young kids had a lighter and knew how to use it and even how to threaten other kids with it. If I had realized that before we left, I might, as some friends suggested, have gotten the police involved. But that brings up another fact: that the police, and even the social workers, can’t usually make much of a difference for kids who are already threatening other kids with violence and hate crimes by the time they’re in kindergarten. Finally, there’s the fact that my kids don’t have to deal with neglected kids or kids growing up in the mob of a public school. They have a lot of friends and sometimes experience exclusion or nastiness, but nothing on this level.
With all these strands of what happened floating in my mind, here’s what I’m going to take away. My kids are awesome. When the bullies wanted BalletBoy to get involved in their game, telling him, “Get him!” BalletBoy said to them in the most exasperated tone, “I’m not going to get anyone!” When they called him names, he walked away and didn’t let it get to him. When they threatened him, Mushroom and BalletBoy immediately came to me. There was a conversation on a certain online forum recently about whether you can “bullyproof” kids. Some people argued vehemently that the victims of bullying can’t do anything to change the situation themselves. Sometimes that’s true. However, I don’t believe that’s always true. I see it in my kids that the best bullyproofing is raising a kid who trusts his parents and feels good about himself. When I hugged BalletBoy before bed tonight, I told him that he already knew something at age six that many adults don’t know, which is that he doesn’t have to listen when people are nasty because he’s happy with who he is. Who knows what sort of person BalletBoy will be when he grows up. But I think he knows that whoever he is, it’s okay. If he can keep that, then he’ll be pretty resilient in life.