Bullying: A Big Complicated Problem with Many Simple Solutions

If each one of us untangled one string at a time...

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Brother, We're Too Young For Facebook!

Kids are asking to be on Facebook younger and younger these days. Although some people think these twin babies are talking about the cobra escaping from the Bronx Zoo, I think it's about Facebook. It may sound far-fetched but I also think parents letting their nine year-olds have a Facebook account is far-fetched -- and it's happening.

Hello, people. The minimum age for Facebook is 13 thanks to COPPA, the children's privacy act. And in my opinion, 13 is still too young. Can 13 year-olds really handle it when a "friend" online doesn't act like a friend?

Newsflash. Kids are not only going on too young but they're creating multiple accounts so no one can look over their shoulder. This falls into the same category as when your teen says "I promise, I'm at the library" or "I'm not going to drink at all at that party, but don't wait up for me because I'm going to spend the night at a friend's."

(Just so you know, I love kids and I don't think they're all sneaky but we have to get real.)

Anti-social media you ask? Not at all. I actually think it's really cool and can help a child feel connected to others but it has to be age-appropriate.

This brings me to Yoursphere.

Since I'm told by it's founder, Mary Kay Hoal, that 87% of the kids on Yoursphere find it themselves, your kids may already know about it. When I heard that Mary Kay, a mother of 5, took matters into her own hands and built a safe social media site strictly for kids -- as young as 5 but not older than 17 -- I had to check it out for myself. (Note: The average age of the kids on Yoursphere is 11 or 12.)

Once I did, I had to agree with the bottom line in a recent PC Magazine review:
Bottom Line
If you're looking for a kid-centered social network that has all the features of a Swiss Army Knife but none of the sharp edges, make Yoursphere your choice.

So before you get worn down by your 10 year-old begging you to go on Facebook because "everybody is," check out Yoursphere. By creating "spheres" of interest, kids get to pursue their hobbies and learn how to interact with others in a safer way than social media sites meant for adults. (Note: I say safer because there is no guarantee that kids won't trip over something that another child has said that is not age-appropriate, but the folks at Yoursphere have gone the extra mile to make it as safe as possible. When I went through it, I felt it was fun and respectful. As parents, though, we need to be going online with our young kids when we can and of course, keep the computer in a public area in the house.)

By the way, you'll thank me for telling you about Yoursphere for Parents. Fantastic resource that helps keep parents up to date on the pros and cons of the online world.

It doesn't do the site justice to say that it's like having training wheels, but it's the training wheels I think kids AND adults need. Kids have to learn how to navigate and build judgment and parents need a tool to help them start to build that judgment. Online safety is a little about technology and a lot about maturity.

So one of the twins is right, "Brother, are you crazy? We're babies. Facebook will make us cry."

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bullying: This Video Needs No Explanation

This video doesn't need explanation but it does need action. Let's fix the disconnects here. How did we get to be a country that accepts such meanness in our children and for that matter, in ourselves?

Here's an idea. Teach them when they're young.

As part of a pilot leadership (bullying prevention) mentoring program in a local school, the seventh and eighth grade kids play word games with 3rd and 2nd graders. The goal of the game, created by one of the school's dedicated parents, is to introduce words like leadership, kindness, and generosity. The point is to make sure that all the kids know that these aren't just words. They're actions. The older kids are instructed to compliment their young partners when they seem to get the concept of friendship and respect. This is a long process, but the idea is to set help set the tone from as early as Pre-K about the school's expectation: Not everyone has to be your friend but everyone IS expected to treat others well at school. This includes on the bus, in the cafeteria, schoolyard, hallways, and even the bathrooms.

Even after setting this expectation in multiple ways, bullying will still happen, especially from 6th through 8th grade, but it won't be quite as acceptable. Kids may feel more comfortable about getting help if they know that adults in the building care and steps will be taken to make it stop.

When parents create this same type of expectation at home, as well, we all benefit. Here's a hopeful story to demonstrate this point. One of the volunteer moms, Cathy, told me that she was already starting to see some mean behavior bubble up in her daughter's fourth grade class. She and her husband sat their fourth grade daughter down and spelled out their expectation: she is to treat others the way she wants to be treated. Mean behavior would absolutely not be tolerated.

Recently, Cathy overheard her daughter talking to a friend on the phone. She was telling her friend that she wasn't going to participate in gossip about another classmate. She said that she didn't feel that what was being said was true and the other girl didn't deserve it.

Cathy walked past her daughter's room, asked her if everything was OK, and then gave her two thumbs up. Her little girl was caught in the act of stepping up and later, Cathy made a point to tell her how much she admired how she handled it.

If this was an Olympic event, Cathy should get a gold medal. She set an expectation and stuck to her guns. Then when her nine-year old rose to the occasion, she recognized it and gave her daughter a chance to feel proud and empowered. Her daughter is now part of the solution and not part of the problem. A great step in changing the balance in the classroom.

Young kids want to make adults proud at home, in school, on the field, in band practice or anywhere they get an adult's attention. Now let's set clear expectations and watch them rise.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What We Can Learn From PACER: A Great Bullying Prevention Resource

I love the midwest. I've lived in New York for 35 years but I'm still a midwesterner at heart...and the PACER Center, a national organization based in Minnesota, is just one more reason to love it. Who knew that one of the most successful organizations in the bullying prevention field is rooted in one of the most successful resources for families with children with disabilities?

PACER doesn't talk about the problem. They step up.

I learned about PACER when I was researching the National Bullying Prevention Month last fall. As I followed the trail to the organizers of this campaign, it turned out to be PACER.

I had to ask them the obvious question and Julie Hertzog, director of PACER's National Center for Bullying Prevention, explained:

Why did PACER become involved in the bullying issue and how does it tie in with your original mission of being a resource for parents of children with disabilities?
Around ten years ago, PACER began receiving more and more calls around the bullying of children with disabilities. The stories were very sad, heartbreaking. When we found that statistically children with disabilities were considerably more subject to bullying than their peers, we knew that we needed to take action around education and awareness.

Who would you consider to be your most important audience and how do you reach them?
The students themselves are the key, as they are the ones experiencing the bullying, they know the social hierarchies and dynamics, involving them in the solution is critical - but, they can't do this alone, bullying prevention is everyone's responsibility, students need to know that they are supported by adults and teachers, that there is an infrastructure in place through legislation, policy, and education. They can't do it alone.

We reach them through KidsAgainstBullying.org and TeensAgainstBullying.org which are sites designed for the specific audience – information is presented in a way that is relevant to kids.

PACER was recently invited to the White House Bullying Prevention Summit. Isn't that amazing? Ten years ago, PACER got involved in the bullying issue because it was "heartbreaking" and needed to be addressed. Ten years ago, bullying wasn't in the national news. They weren't responding to the bullying issue for any type of attention. PACER stepped up because in their journey to help kids with disabilities, they realized that bullying was diminishing the lives of kids in all types of circumstances. Once again, families with kids with disabilities, have inspired change and are teaching all families a thing or two.

If your child or teen is being mistreated, encourage them to visit the Kids Against Bullying or the Teens Against Bullying websites. In addition to good information, young stars Demi Lovato and most recently, MICHAEL and MARISA are adding their voices to help PACER reach kids by getting the point across that "we all are the same."

They're right. No one can do it alone. Thanks, PACER.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Bully Project

I defy you to look at this trailer for The Bully Project and not understand that our kids are suffering.

Sometimes it's hard to walk into a classroom and be able to identify who, along with their backpack, is carrying this heartache around with them.

Is it necessary? I really don't think so and if you don't think so, either, consider making a donation to this film. I'm thrilled that the White House hosted a bullying summit. I have confidence that good things will come from that meeting...but I think this documentary will make the biggest positive impact to date. FYI: The Bully Project will be featured at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23rd.

We need to untangle more strings faster because at the core of this tangled ball mess of an issue, is the heart of a child. We can either stand by and watch it break or we can step in and make sure it remains whole.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Safety in Numbers: Parents and Schools Working Together in Bullying Prevention

Recently, my cousin was telling me about her sixth grade son, Tom, who was being excluded. It seemed to start all of a sudden. A big group of "friends" started to go to Wendy's after school but would make a big point that he wasn't included. I don't have to tell you what that does to not only the child, but the parent. It's so confusing and hurtful. Not only were the kids friends up until now, the parents had always been friends, too.

This is a tough one. Anger is the first reaction. It's incredibly hard to not want to dismember 12 year-olds but my cousin held it together (for the most part -- of course, she couldn't help but give the smug kids the "hairy eyeball" when she dropped him off to school.)

She kept it to herself except to tell a few trusted family members until one day when another mother noticed her change in attitude. She was not as friendly as she usually is to the other moms and a bit sad and frustrated. When the other mom asked my cousin if there was anything wrong, she calmly explained that she was disappointed in the class and explained the facts. (This is an important detail -- stick to the facts.) Of course, she cried a little bit but that's to be expected.

Guess what? It's one of the few times that the other parent did EXACTLY the right thing. It dawned on her that her own son, Conor, was one of the "bullies" and had to be corrected. She corrected her son without making a big deal out of it and made sure he included everyone the next time they got together as a group. It didn't end there, though. The other kids then excluded the TWO of them. Shocked, Conor confronted the group as they sat in a Subway restaurant. Their excuse -- there's not enough seats. Totally untrue.

Next step? One of the popular eighth graders saw this whole thing unfold and invited Tom and Conor to join him and his friends at a pizza parlor.

The eighth grader went home and told his mom what had happened. She encouraged the other moms to talk to their kids and it hasn't happened since. They all gather after school and go to a local fast food restaurant. They may not all be best friends, but they all feel included.

The moral of this story: When parents ban together to do the right thing and in the right way, kids do the right thing... and cool eighth graders should be cloned.

After the White House Summit on Bullying last week, the PTA announced new materials that parents can use to help their schools diminish the incidences of all types of bullying.

Parents are absolutely key. Hopefully, these materials will be a helpful FREE Resource for parent groups who want to step in.

Friday, March 11, 2011

White House Summit on Bullying: What Can We Do?

In President Obama's opening remarks at the White House Summit on Bullying, he said, "No child should feel that alone." That just about sums up why I'm involved.

In the closing remarks after all the true but tragic stories, the overwhelming statistics and expert advice had been shared, the audience was asked to ask themselves, "What more can I do?"

In answer to that question, I want to share with you what others are doing in the field of bullying prevention and online safety and who are dedicated to providing real help...but first, I want to share a couple of things I personally took away from the conference.

This is such a huge issue but I constantly come back to three things that I think are critical in making a positive impact:

Early Prevention

Bottom Line: If we start very young -- PreK and up -- and create the expectation of respect, we have a shot at changing the balance when they get older.


Bottom Line: Parents are where it's at. Kids need to be prepared at home for social interactions. Parents can acknowledge and encourage their children when they treat others well and correct them when they don't.

Bystander (or Upstander):

Bottom Line: When you think about it, the bystander is everyone. Compassion and leadership skills can be taught and we can teach kids how to step up for others in ways that are comfortable to them. (If you ask kids, they know that their peers make the biggest difference.)

If you want to start somewhere, there are so many resources. Stopbullying.gov was announced yesterday and there are others listed to the right. Not every community, school or home is the same so tailoring campaigns or materials to fit your needs is really important. In my community, I, along with the support of the principal and the help of other interested parents, started the Be the One mentoring campaign because it suited the needs of the school and it appealed to both the adults and the age span of the children. I also wanted it to be fun which is very key to holding the kids' attention (and mine, too!) It has created an infrastructure that allows parents and teachers to introduce curriculum they come across and activities that promote friendship and respect. As a matter of fact, next Tuesday, we'll be using some of the tools from Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center. (I'll be posting more about their fabulous work next week.)

Best Advice from the Summit: My favorite was expert Rosalind Wiseman's advice to any adult on what to say when a child comes to them about being bullied:
I'm really sorry this happened to you. Thank you for telling me. I'll stand by you.

"What more can I do?" We can all help by sharing ideas and keeping the conversation going. Let me know what you're doing and I'd be happy to share it with others.

Monday, March 7, 2011

When Young Kids Feel the True Meaning of Power: The Anti-Bully

You don't have to be "powerful" to stand up. Standing up will change you, change the world, and may even change the bully.

Rick Ackerly, education expert and author of The Genius in Children, offered the above comment on a recent Tangled Ball post regarding Jennifer Aniston's upstander moment.

I'm so grateful that he did because it really got me thinking about that word "powerful." As anyone knows who reads this blog, I use the book ONE, by Kathryn Otoshi as the foundation for a mentoring campaign for K-8 schools. Although technically a children's book, ONE demonstrates that some children seem to naturally know how to step up but others need to be shown. In other words, it's a teachable skill. Sometimes it's taught by an adult but my guess is that more often it's taught by example and by a peer.

Among the many reasons I love this book is that it so beautifully and simply changes the perception that only a few kids in a class are "powerful." Popularity, charisma, physical strength or aggression are not the only sources of power. Each child, if trained to step up in a way comfortable for them individually, can become empowered. When you see it in action, empowerment is no longer a buzz word. It's a joy watching kids become very comfortable in their own skin. They seem less self-conscious, more relaxed and quicker to appreciate their own voice.

His comment made me feel hopeful. Since I'm a big fan of hope in general, I reached out to "Mr. Rick," as he's known to students, to ask the following question:

When it comes to elementary school-aged children, what's your definition of 'powerful'?

My definition of a powerful elementary school child is the same as for all people, i.e someone who is skilled at defining themselves creatively, effectively and gracefully in the world. Since people are defined not only as unique entities but also by their relationships, this self-definition has everything to do with our relationships with others. Since the world is ever-changing, it is a never ending, dynamic process.

A powerful kindergartner is one who comes into the room, ready for the next challenge that their teacher or classmates dish out, someone who will see a project and make it her own whatever the given constraints. One of my favorite Ken Robinson stories is of the kindergartner who is drawing madly at his desk when the teacher comes by and says: “What are you drawing?”
K: “A picture of God.”
T: “But no one has ever seen God.”
K: “They will in a minute.”

This kindergartner is powerful. Following our genius to become our character is the everyday challenge of life from conception to death. It is also the purpose of education. Powerful people take responsibility for their relationships (100%-0, not 50-50), strive to harmonize their desires with those of others, and come across as comfortable in their own skin. For most of my career I have acted as if all people can be powerful like this and have pretty good anecdotal evidence that it’s true.

That's what I like to hear! "All people can be powerful like this." They just might need some help starting in Kindergarten.

In future posts, I'll let you know what Rick said about defining a child as a "bully" or "victim." Hint: It doesn't work so well when you're trying to nurture empowerment.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Geotagging Is One More Reason To Know What Kind of Technology is in Your Children's Hands

Geotagging! Obviously, this has nothing to do with my regular topic of bullying or cyberbullying but it has everything to do with online safety.

It's something we have to be aware of when we give children cell phones. To be honest, I worry that we, as parents, don't know enough about the technology in our hands and/or in the hands of our kids. Sometimes when I talk to parents about online safety, I get that deer in the headlights look as if to say "this is too much to figure out. When it comes to cell phones, computers and social networking, I just have to hope for the best."

I must admit that I've been one of those parents. Even when I read about geotagging in the NY Times, I thought, "Oh no, not ONE more thing to worry about. Do I really have to worry about this today?"

It's Friday, so I promised myself that sometime over the weekend -- maybe over pancakes -- I'm going to make a game out of figuring out how to turn off the app. If there isn't a way, then the carrier has to be called or visited. This is only slightly better than getting a root canal but it's somehow going to be better in the end. At the very least, it will make me feel like less of a chump for having some big wig tech exec take away one more aspect of our privacy. (By the way, have you ever noticed how tv producers and tech people make decisions like there are no children on the planet?)

Pass the syrup and the phone.