My fourth-grade year was an especially difficult time. My parents had recently separated and my kid brother, Ronnie, tragically drowned during our summer vacation. My mother, my siblings and I moved to a new neighborhood, which meant that I had to attend a new school — my third in as many years.
And then there was this kid named Zelmer.
I met Zelmer on my first day of school, or, more accurately, Zelmer "met" me. You see, he had an "important" role in the fourth-grade world. He was the class bully, and he and his "side-kicker," Eugene, approached me on my first trip to the playground. Zelmer made it clear he did not like me and that when the last class bell tolled, I would be his.
Needless to say, it was difficult to focus during class that day. When the last bell rang, I had one task — locate Zelmer before he dislocated me. Fortunately, I succeeded and lived to play another day.
I had not thought much about Zelmer in recent years, but I was reminded of him when one of my sons was in the sixth grade. We were having a family dinner and our normally talkative son was unusually quiet. When I asked him what was wrong, he said "nothing," but eventually he burst into tears. He had met the "son of Zelmer" and was struggling with how to handle the situation.
I must admit I was tempted to go up to the school and deal with the kid personally. Fortunately, I did not or else someone else would probably be president of National Fatherhood Initiative. Furthermore, I knew this was not the last Zelmer my son was going to encounter and he needed to know how to deal with them. So once my son composed himself, we discussed strategies on how to end the bullying.
Bullying is something most children will encounter in some form. It can be name-calling, being picked on, or worse. There is a temptation, especially as a dad, to ask "What's the big deal?" In fact, all forms of bullying are abusive and can leave a painful legacy that affects our children even as adults. Accordingly, dads have a unique and important role to play in helping their kids deal with bullies. In addition, social science data shows that children with involved dads are more likely to exhibit pro-social behavior, like proper impulse control and good conflict-resolution skills, and thereby be less likely to bully or be the target of bullies.
If your child is being bullied, here are some things to consider.
• Get involved early. As soon as your children begin to interact with others, you need to begin teaching them not to be bullied. Remember, children generally do not learn to solve these kinds of problems by themselves. Dad, you need to teach them.
• Bullies need love, too. Despite your frustration or even anger when you hear about your child being bullied, you must remember that the bully is a kid, too. Moreover, bullies are very often children who have been bullied or abused themselves. They may be experiencing a life situation that leaves them feeling helpless and out of control. Since they cannot control life, they want to control your child.
• Bullies do not grow on trees. They usually have parents, and in many cases their parents do not know that their child is the class bully. Accordingly, it is generally a good strategy to get them involved. Remember, however, that they will probably be defensive at first, so do not lose your cool and make the matter worse.
• Just the facts, ma'am. It is important that you be a "Detective Joe Friday" and get as much information as you can from your child before you take action. Make sure that you consider your child's behavior, conflict-management skills and temperament. The solution to this problem may entail some changes for both your child and the bully.
• Remember, life is a stage. One of the things that my son found most helpful was to role-play how he could respond to the bully. This gave him a renewed sense of confidence. I strongly recommend that you actually walk through the situations and have your child practice different responses.
• Get additional help if needed. Like your child, you are not alone in handling this situation. Teachers, school administrators, counselors and pastors can be great resources. In addition, you can visit www.safechild.org and have your child visit www.mcgruff.org for helpful tips on how to deal with bullying.
I would be remiss if I did not tell you how things worked out between Zelmer and me. Well, he and Eugene never got me. Interestingly, I met Zelmer again, minus Eugene, when I was in high school. By this time, I was playing football and had been lifting weights. Zelmer, however, had kept his fourth-grade physique. You get the punch line. Fortunately for Zelmer, he didn't get the punch.
• Roland C. Warren is the married father of two sons and president of the National Fatherhood Initiative (www.fatherhood.org). His Pop's Culture column appears on the first Sunday of the month in the Sunday Family Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.