Learning About Differences

Justifiable concern has been expressed about the exposure of children to bullying, on social media, in school, and in neighborhood encounters.  Less attention is paid to those who do the bullying, what motivates their behavior, and how to address what is clearly destructive both for them and their targets.  Children who bully have their own sets of problems which will undoubtedly interfere with successful social interactions at some other points in the future, despite whatever sense of power they may derive from their behavior at the moment.

It would seem that education has an important role to play here, since both the bullied and the bullies are usually in the same classrooms or schools.  Often the children bullied are those who are vulnerable in some way, because of differences in appearance, personality, or behavior.  This does not mean they are responsible for being bullied and it is not a matter of “blame the victim.”  Rather it points to the need to  teach children to be accepting of differences, and to help them develop understanding and empathy.

My attention was called to this issue during a visit from my ten year old granddaughter, who was reading a book called, “Wonder”, by R.J. Palacio (Random House Children’s Books).  She explained that it was about a boy who was born with extreme facial abnormalities.  Having previously been homeschooled, he was entering a mainstream school for the first time in the fifth grade, and was being taunted and bullied by his classmates.

While relating this story, she told me that she had been in class with an autistic boy.  I asked her how she knew the term “autistic”, and why it applied to this boy.  She related that before the child entered the class, the teacher had a discussion with them  explaining his problems, and how they might be noticed in his behavior.  For example, he might repeat certain things, or ask the same questions again, and they should ignore this and not make fun of him.  His behavior never became the focus of attention after that, and he was accepted as part of the class.

In discussing “Wonder”, I asked what if anything had helped Auggie, the protagonist of the story.  My granddaughter explained that it was really the fact that two boys in the class befriended him.  This gave Auggie needed support, and also became a model for other children as well.  

This brought to mind the story that has been told about Jackie Robinson, the first black player on a major team in professional baseball.  He endured endless torment from fans and members of other teams as well as his own.  But a significant turning point was said to occur when Pee Wee Reese, a team favorite, walked off the field with Robinson with his arm around him.  His clear display of acceptance and friendship had an impact on the attitudes of others.

According to my granddaughter, in the story, the school principal also made a difference.  Children were sent to the principal when their behavior was offensive, and they were made to apologize.  She explained that apologies were hard for some kids because they didn’t think they had done anything wrong.  But in the end, they learned not to be mean.

This might suggest that apologies were a punishment, and that punishment is the way to teach kids.  A more useful way of understanding this, however, is in the way respected authority figures can influence the behavior of children.  Such individuals not only set an example through their own behavior, but communicate what is valued in the behavior of others, and what is not.  Apologies can be meaningful when they accompany an understanding of the impact of hurtful behavior on others, and a growing ability to identify with the feelings involved.

It is interesting that some kids found it hard to apologize because they “didn’t think they had done anything wrong.”  Parents are familiar with the experience of a young child on the bus or street pointing to a handicapped person and making loud comments. Or saying things like, “That man has a funny nose.”  Young children think they are just noticing what is obvious, as they do about many things around them, and are unaware both of the impact, and of the social inappropriateness of their comments. 

Since the children in the story were in the fifth grade, one would hope they were no longer behaving out of such unawareness.  Whatever the explanation, it points to the role of parents, as well as educators, in helping children develop their innate capacity for empathy from early ages on.  Although as parents we are embarrassed by children’s growing awareness of differences between people, the times this happens are actually teaching moments for us, and learning opportunities for our children.

As parents, we can play a big part in educating our children to become the friends who support, rather than those who bully those who are different.