Once upon a time…
I was listening to my daughter, then four, recount the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. “‘Someone’s been eating my porridge, and they ate it all up.’ ‘Oh, Baby Bear, you must be very sad. I will make you some more.’ And she gave Baby Bear a hug.”
This is not the way I remember the story, and I perk up out of my half-listening state. “Then they went into the living room,” she continued….“‘Someone’s been sitting in my chair, and they broke it all to pieces!’ “Oh, Baby Bear, you must be very mad,’ says Mama Bear.”
“Wait,” I say, “that’s not the way I remember the story. Who has been telling it to you that way?” “Laila,” my daughter replies.
Of course! Laila, Wynnie’s godmother and founder/director of the preschool she attended, had changed the story a bit. I asked Laila about it a few days later.
“The thing that has always bothered me about the story,” she explained, “is that they leave Baby Bear alone with his feelings. No one notices how he feels or offers to help him.”
Silly Laila, so concerned about the feelings of a fictional bear. I chalked it up to her quirkiness and shrugged it off. Amusing, but not important.
But it stuck with me. I was thinking about it today, eight years later, while listening to a program on the radio about bullying. Adults were talking about the long-term negative impact being bullied had on their lives. They were arguing that bullying must be taken more seriously, and that children need to be protected from it. They are right. Others argue, they said, that bullying is part of childhood and something children just need to go through. This is also true.
Some people think they can protect their children from bullying by identifying and isolating the bullies. Some think they can protect their children by making them bully-proof: if they have the right name, the right clothes, and the right attitude, they will not be bullied. The trouble with the first approach is that bullies are children too. They are not a virus that can be isolated and contained.
The trouble with the second approach is that the child tends to feel blamed for what is happening to them. Bullying becomes the fault of the child who can not, or will not, conform to the bullies’ view of normal. The trouble with both approaches is that neither offers tools or support to the bullied child.
Bullying is real and problematic and adults have an important role in curtailing it. AND, some bullying is going to happen. Helping kids cope with it is also an important adult role. Here’s where the three bears come in.
Silly me, Laila was not concerned about the feelings of a fictional bear. She was teaching the value of acknowledging feelings and offering support. We have a tendency to dismiss the impact of what we cannot control in our lives and in the lives of our children. The false choice is often made between intervening to fix something, and telling kids they just need to buck up and get through it. I think because we are frustrated and overwhelmed by what we cannot control, we want to dismiss the impact. We say things like, “He didn’t really mean it,” or, “it happens to everyone, get over it.” This leaves children alone with their anger, shame, or confusion. Too often children report that they initially asked for help, but nobody took them seriously, so they quit asking.
Bullying is a serious problem that needs adult intervention, AND some bullying is inevitable, AND we can give our children the social/emotional tools they need to cope with it. One of those tools is a support system that takes their feelings seriously. “That must be awful.” “You must be really mad about that.” “You look really sad.” “What can I do to help?” Refill that bowl of porridge, mend the rocker, offer some salve to the bruised ego. Life has its rough spots. Every child will need to cope with unpleasant people and injustices. But they don’t have to do it alone.