Star Wars and Light Sabers in the Age of Cyberbullying
It started with a "Star Wars" game at recess. Darth Vader, the brutish bully from a galaxy far, far away, came to my son's playground personified as a first grader. He had backup. Another boy was also armed for battle to fight the Jedis, but my son had no intention of playing Luke Skywalker.
"Chris and Henry chased me with sticks and scratched me during recess," my then six-year-old son Jonah told me, holding out his arm as evidence of the attack.
"Were you playing?" I asked. "No," he insisted. "They were being mean and chasing me."
Over the next week, Jonah reported daily that he was chased on the playground. My husband and I worried that our son was being bullied. I spoke to the teacher who saw no evidence of harassment. But Jonah continued to complain. And so I called the other boys' parents.
One of the moms had been on playground duty and said she watched the boys playing "Star Wars." Apparently, they were brandishing sticks as light sabers. And yes, a stick scratched my son, but it appeared to be part of the game, not an intentional act of cruelty. And by the way, my son seemed to be trying to counter attack. Hmm, well at least he's trying to defend himself, I thought.
When I asked Jonah about the Jedi game, he remained resolute that the boys were out to get him and it was not fun. Was Jonah being overly sensitive and misinterpreting creative play, albeit a dangerous game with sharp sticks? Was I overreacting or smartly protecting my son? If "Star Wars" is the quintessential story of a dark, evil emperor trying to take over the galaxy, well then should we be discourage this play? Or does emulating Clones, Siths or Jedis help teach conflict resolution?
Cut to three years later. Jonah is now in fourth grade and has been telling me about a BAD KID who is constantly getting into trouble, breaking things, disrupting the class, and even smoking cigarettes. This BAD KID also punched my son last year - something I didn't find out about until recently.
So, at back-to-school-night a few weeks ago, my husband, Michael, and I were curious to meet the parents of this legendary child.
Michael spotted BAD KID's parents in the hallway.
"They look completely normal," Michael, reported back to me.
Michael confessed that he was expecting a thug-like dad with serpent tattoos creeping up his biceps and a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his Wife Beater t-shirt. Instead he discovered an average-sized man in a pair of khakis with a big smile and a friendly handshake.
"Your son is doing great," one of the teachers said to BAD KID'S parents.
Maybe it was wishful thinking or just back-to-school warm fuzzies where you make all the parents feel good. Expect greatness and kids will rise, or so goes the pop-psychology. But maybe this is also a technique to thwart tough kids from becoming real bullies. The teachers weren't ignoring the behavior in school perhaps they were trying to change it.
So what is the difference between a bully and just a mean or troubled kid?
"A bully is intentionally going after a person on a regular basis, sometimes the two can go together, but a child who has an aggressive nature isn't necessarily a bully," said Dr. Robi Ludwig a psychotherapist who works with Success for Kids, a national school-based anti-bullying program. "A bully actually gets a little sadistic pleasure from focusing on another child's weaknesses."
And the weakness can be anything from un-cool clothes and a bad haircut to living in the wrong neighborhood. This is exactly the kind of fuel that can spurn mean girl behavior as well. And mean girls may be the ultimate bullies and a mother's worst nightmare. Simultaneously bitchy and aggressive, mean girls are also exclusive. Sadly, mean-girl behavior or relational or social aggression as professional call it, is striking younger than ever.
A recent New York Times article says that, because children are ageing up - growing older younger - a trend with its own acronym (G.O.Y.) they are getting meaner younger. The girls who once started getting nasty in fifth grade are now getting mean at five years old. So the taunting is beginning as young as kindergarten with moms even enabling the behavior.
The Times article quotes a kindergarten teacher at one of New York City's top all-girls private schools who observes that "The mean girls are often from mean moms.'"
Anecdotally this definitely seems to be true.
"Some moms I know seem to relish the fact that their nine-year-old daughter is in the it group' at school or at camp and is the queen bee of the crowd," said my friend Nikki, the mother of a fourth grade daughter. "They not only tolerate the exclusivity of their daughter's group but they accept that girls can just be mean. I have to say that these moms still have the mean girl in them too."
So is the nastiness just part of growing up? And what if anything should be tolerated?
Experts say that parents need to be involved from the beginning and that we need to let our children know that we have their backs and that we are in control of the situation.
"We owe it to our kids to give them the confidence to deal with it. But they need to know that you're in the process with them and that they have your support," Dr. Ludwig said.
And that ultimately, we're armed with an extra light saber to protect them.
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