Writing is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.

— Winston Churchill

Wondering on Wednesday: Teaching Children to Embrace Differences

I wonder if our propensity for conformity feeds a culture of bullying. I don’t know anyone that thinks childhood bullying is acceptable, but I wonder if our adult choices in friendships provide a spotlight for homogeneous circles, and teaches our children that although it’s easy to discuss diversity, the practice of accepting differences is much more difficult.

I’ve read many, many blog posts over the last year where moms and dads were lamenting because of a classroom bully.  WickedStopMom posted about an experience she witnessed amongst her daughter’s peer group last weekend. Vodka Mom broke my heart with this post (thanks Tara for pointing it out) and several months ago, I wrote an article about coping with bullies in response to another blogger who piqued my interest on the topic.

I’ve always wondered how children learn to bully. There are obvious precursors in many situations, but I’m also sure we teach children with our own, seemingly benign indicators as well. Do we teach it to them at home, in subtle ways that then manifest themselves on the playground and in the classroom? I heard Aaron call one of his friends a loser the other day. I wanted to throttle him, or slink away into a dark hole. I did neither, but we did do a fair amount of talking.

I don’t make friends easily. I’m guilty of not making room in my life for new relationships, but in the last year I’ve met two women who I’ve come to adore. They also have 5-year-old boys and we just seem to be, in many ways, at the same place in our lives at the same time. They’re smart, funny, politically up-to-date, socially conscious and active, they have huge hearts, and they strike me as the kind of women who’d have my back in any situation. We have similar lifestyles and these are friendships I want to nurture and grow. They make sense. The fact that Aaron goes to school with their boys, and they all love playing together is a slice of suburban heaven.

It takes a lifetime to grow an old friend, and I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the process of friendship, its creation and sustenance. We make new friends, most likely, because we meet at a specific time in our lives where the relationship makes sense. It feeds some part of our soul and as time marches on and our circumstances change, the test of longevity is the ability to accept and rejoice in the choices we each make, regardless of how different we become.

My friend Amy came to visit Saturday. We’ve been thicker than thieves for 24 years and as we make our way through our late 30s, we couldn’t be more different. In fact, if we met for the first time today we’d probably not give each other a second glance. Almost every choice we’ve made over the last decade is polar opposite and I think we’d have difficulty finding common ground. It amazes me that we can spend hour after hour discussing everything under the moon, including all our reasoning for making different choices. We continue to gently challenge each other, to provide opportunity to question and debate, to relentlessly chide each other, and I think we’re both more contemplative as a result.

My friendship with Amy and my understanding that it’s not a relationship that would bud today, also begs me to wonder how many wonderful people I don’t give a second thought simply because their lifestyle or views are opposite of my own. The dismissal isn’t purposeful, but I’m sure it happens.

I had never thought of Amy and I as yin-yang resource for our children to draw upon and see that people who make different choices and who have different belief systems can actually enrich each others lives, but the more I think about it, the more I like the idea. I hope I’ll open my heart to find more enrichment opportunities by adding new friends, both those that make sense and those that don’t. I hope I can provide an example for Aaron to intertwine circles rather than complete them singularly.

I’m Wondering on Wednesday: what ideas do you have to help keep yourself from becoming a bully, and to teach your child to embrace rather than ridicule differences?

PS: To see my new favorite photo essay, take a look at this post from Melanie at BeanPaste.

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25 comments to Wondering on Wednesday: Teaching Children to Embrace Differences

  • I’ve been on the other side of bullying. The receiving end of the deal, so to speak so I’m extra sensitive to bully tactics. I’ve always tried to teach my children to follow the Golden Rule and put themselves in other people’s shoes. I can’t say it’s always worked but at least I’ve forced them to think about their actions.

    My friend whom I’ve known the longest is my best and closest friend but also my polar opposite. We started running in different circles in high school. She was in band and I was an athlete and we spent 20 years with only a handful of phone calls and visits shared between us. Now we are close and we love each others company even though we have totally different views on politics, family, and other important issues. It doesn’t matter to me.

  • My parents always made a big effort to have people over for dinner, including people that were different than us. Many of them weren’t really that different from us demographically, but many were, and the relatively constant stream of strangers to our table really helped me not judge people at face value. Great topic.

  • Amy

    My dearest opposite friend, great thoughts! I do think that having your child see you accept differences is critical to how they will view differences in others. Also talk about it, kids need knowledge and lots of talking can provide that!

  • donna

    Do you remeber the blog you posted about a mom on the play ground that turned her nose up at you for being a working mom? I wrote in my comment that this is why all our children become bullies or mimick their parents . I still feel the same way. I think that we learn by seeing our parents do the exact thing that you talked about. Don’t you think that if her children were standing there watching that they would have picked up on this attitude and mimick it in theirs. You grew up in a giving home and a friendly home and I do think that is in paert some of the reason for you being the giving caring person that you are. We had a lot of friends around all the time. Our house was always full and we tryed not to judge any of your friends unless we thought they were not a good influence on you or your younger siblings. I know that a lot went on behind our backs but we always kept our eyes and ears open to who they were. I think that if you keep an open mind and a kind heart that your little boy will mimick you and do the same. In retrospect he will not be a bully. Teach him to open his mind and his heart to all walks of life.

  • Discussion and example. Your son will be fine because he has open-minded parents. When a child is taught about compassion, acceptance, empathy and respect, they’ll apply that to everyone they encounter – regardless of economic stature, race, religion, sexual orientation, handicap, intelligence or personal quirkiness. It’s a process by discussion and by example.

  • Tricia

    Midlife Slices: what a wonderful gift to have become close again with your childhood friend, and I’m so sorry to hear you were ever on the other side of a bully!

    Nora Bee: There really isn’t quite anything like sharing a meal, in our own homes, to create connections. What a wonderful experience you must have had.

    Amy: I agree on the talking, but even more important in my mind is the seeing. We have to walk the talk, so to speak.

    Donna: Gosh, our house really was always full of people…your friends, my friends and our family. We never knew if there would be five of us for dinner or ten. You and dad were great sports, and you also provided some great lessons on acceptance of people, that’s for sure. I remember all sorts of conversations around the dinner table where I’m quite sure you guys picked an argument with me about one subject or another just to get me to think and articulate. Thanks for that!

    Hillary: I do think especially compassion and empathy are HUGE and example is critical. Thanks for your encouragement.

  • We teach our girls to verbally spar. To be quick witted and to think fast. Their mouths keep them from fighting more often than not. But, when they are bullied, they use their wits to fight back.

    In today’s world, the concepts on Honor and Integrity have gotten really mixed up. Bear and I try to teach our girls to be better people. To stand up for the weak and to help where they can. Our youngest made a friend my getting in between a small girl and the bully that was picking at her. The small girl and her have been thick as thieves since.

  • It is so hard when they’re younger, I think. I’ve seen Logan be on both sides of it, being both the victim and the aggressor, and while I know a lot of it is age-appropriate behavior (though not socially appropriate! two different things, right?) it still gets to me. I just try to use them as learning opportunities and enforce our family’s belief of caring for others and being kind.

    HeatherPrides last blog post..Fat Girls Club, Week Two: Roly Poly Right Along

  • There will always be mean kids, there will always be mean adults. Maybe I’m being pessimestic, but I’m 51 and there were bullies way back when I was a kid. I think a bigger problem is that our media and general population condones it much more than it used to. Nice is not valued enough.

  • Very timely post for me Tricia… I’m struggling with bullying in my son’s class (this week to him) and I’m rethinking some of our recent choices – but wondering if others are realistic with the society we live in. And trying to teach him tolerance for diversity when I am not feeling it myself (and I pride myself on being so open to people and ideas… eeeek!)

    I agree about people coming into your life at certain times. That they stick around is the true gift. As my mum says, friends come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime.

  • Jan

    Both of my boys have been bullied, one of the reasons Oldest Son dropped out of school (but not the only one, of course). Aside from being extremely introverted, he experienced a lot of bullying because of being biracial – his father is Hispanic – and attending predominantly Hispanic schools. It’s already hard on biracial kids because they don’t really fit in anywhere, but he also never even tried to adapt to the whole Chicano machismo culture. It simply caused him a lot of problems.

    How he learned to deal with it is extremely interesting: he adopted a very “tough” exterior. If you don’t know him, you certainly won’t mess with him – he’s a big, rather mean looking guy, which I find funny because he’s a very gentle, kind person.

    The Young One has learned to deal with the bullying by hanging out with kids, mostly older, who are more mature and share his interests. When you’re in the 8th grade, you gain a lot of clout by hanging out with high school students, and for some reason the bullies tend to leave you alone. :)

    Jans last blog post..There’s a Method To My Madness…

  • OY, can I say how much mean people sucketh? I know your son is and will be a gem in the end because you and your husband are making all the difference.

    MamaGeeks last blog post..Matters Of The Heart.

  • I think it’s about the example we set in our day to day living. It also comes from talking with our children as situations arise. We have no tolerance for meanness or bullying. When I see one of my children being mean in any form, I stop them and we talk about it right away. It doesn’t matter if it’s towards each other, myself or my husband or another child or adult or even an animal. I talk to them about how it feels and let them know under no circumstances will we tolerate bullying or meanness of any form. They know that they will be punished for bullying or intentional meanness.

    On the flip side, when they are the one being bullied, we talk about how it feels and to remember that feeling so that they don’t make someone else feel that way. And then we talk about the best way to handle it when someone is being mean to them.

    We practice a lot at our house…meaning, we talk through or act out how I expect them to behave. We also talk about differences a lot because my little man is biracial and he does get treated differently by some people that are racist. Since he is still pretty young he doesn’t understand why he’s being treated differently yet but some day he will get it.

    Since I used to do daycare for ESL classes they have been exposed to people from various countries and languages, they have grown up with people looking and talking different, being normal. The biggest teacher is leading by our example and addressing each situation as they arise.

    Can I just say how much I enjoy your post and how they make everyone think. Love reading everyones comments too. We can learn so much from one another!

    Loris last blog post..Idiosyncrasy’s?

  • I love the new look.

    I know I can always count on you to give me something to think about. Friendship is something that has been on my mind alot lately. Making, maintaining, letting go, etc. I agree that bullies will always be there. We have to carefully teach our children to respect the differences. I think it is worse today because of the media. All you have to do to find a bully these days is turn on the tv or the radio. Look at how they tear down celebrities, businessmen, politicians. It’s become acceptable, sought after even. People are paid big bucks to be bullies. How do you teach your kid it’s not cool when some would define cool by this very practice?

    I’m glad my girls are grown and not 4 again. It’s getting tougher.

    Smart Mouth Broads last blog post..SPRING HAS SPRUNG

  • This is a great topic to raise again.

    I second what was said above about example and discussion being the best approaches.

    Cheri @ Blog This Mom!s last blog post..We Don’t Always Get What We Want

  • Great post. I agree many things contribute to the end result of bullying. I’ve learned in my 3 years of parenting a child with a physical difference that some of it is 100% accidental and unintentional negative messages. We tell our kids to accept differences and expose them to diversity, but then we turn around and contradict ourselves in ways that seem like no big deal. For example, we read stories to our kids about an ugly prince who has an evil spell over him who becomes ridiculously handsome once the evil has left him and such. We show villains in movies and books as having physical defects of some sort.

    I’m extra sensitive to it all and I blow it from time to time. I remember once I was thumbing through a book of cat pictures with my daughter. One picture was of a hairless cat. Every time we got to the page with that cat’s picture we’d wrinkle up our noses together and say all sorts of ewwwwwws and icks. It was fun for us to do that together. We’d laugh and laugh. She was just over 2 at the time. Of course, that reaction came from me and I was teaching her to respond in kind. I was teaching her to judge that cat by the fact it looked different. It took me well over a dozen times of reading that book to her to realize what I was doing. I was horrified to hear her saying things about the cat (things I had taught her to say, in essence) that weren’t far off from hurtful things some people had said about/to her. Definitely a wake up call for me. Now I am better about how I react to all differences in life, human and non-human. We use the word unique a lot now and talk about how cool it is to be just that.

    Lisa Ps last blog post..For God Being All Knowing

  • I love your sites new look, first of all! Gorgeous!

    Secondly, I’m with you. My 9 yo has been on the receiving end, and older boys who teased him, along with an older sister (13 yo), who will start losing priviledges soon if she doesn’t lighten up on him (typical little brother annoyance) because sometimes I catch him overpowering his little brother and slightly younger sister (she’s 8). I ask him, when I catch him, if he sees himself as a mean child, and he says no. So I ask him why he wants to act that way. I think he is picking up some habits from other children at school, along with his older sister who gets talked to all the time about it, or something else we’re not picking up on. I have yet to get to the bottom of this, but he is most certainly not a bully, but when I see him messing with our 4 yo, or his sister, but sometimes I have to wonder if he might not turn out to be. I hope I can figure it out soon :-S

    Lisa @ Crazy Adventures in Parentings last blog post..To Do Tuesday – Week 8

  • @Nora Bee – that is quite an original and refreshing idea; inviting various other people and or relative from different backgrounds to dinner/into your home will really open your kids eyes.

    It is almost a very ‘Christian’ approach in that you welcome someone into your home for dinner who you know little about but you wish to learn more about them, their background and their lives.

    The more the children understand and learn about different backgrounds, disabilities and religions the easier it is for the children to integrate and accept others.

    It’s all about educating the children at the end of the day.

    • Mondy

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  • My thoughts are that bullying is such a complex combination of factors that there will never be a simple fix to the problem. I think often it comes down to part biology, part conformity, part learned behavior, part egocentricity, and sometimes part just plain meanness.

    In my humble opinion a kid who has good self-esteem, is surrounded by those exhibiting good examples, and who has a good channel of communication with their parents are less likely to be bullied, and are less likely to become bullies.

    Interestingly I recently heard a Professor of some childhood specialty (can’t remember what however) suggested that on some level, mild bullying can be beneficial to a child’s development of conflict resolution skills.


  • Russel

    Teaching the differences to kids isn’t easy, the differences will stay as differences for long time. The differences will shape them when they grow. It is the natural choices that are part of the nature around us. kids will quickly adapt to their closest family members, This is undeniable fact.

    Hot Water Heater Reviews

  • If one has a good support system, he will be able to embrace differences among his peers. One doesn’t have to be friends with a lot of people. What one needs is to have a friend to grow old with.

  • As parents we must pay attention to the way our children interact with others. If we seem them being rude or unfair to other children you must call it out immediately and not brush it off as a phase. If your child sees you accept poor behavior then it is okay and normal. It starts and ends with parenting always

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