Welcome to Great Moments in Parenting, a series where fathers explain a parenting hurdle they faced and the unique way they overcame it. Here, Collin, 38, from Ohio, has an illuminating conversation with his son — a budding school bully — about the insecure feelings they had in common.
The call came in: “Hi, this is Principal so-and-so…We’ve had a problem with your son. He’s a bully.”
My son is in fourth grade. He’s a bigger kid. Not fat, but more Fortnite and less football, if that makes sense. Just sort of a typical, clumsy 10-year-old who isn’t the biggest or the smallest in his class.
The message continued, “It’s come to our attention that your son has been pushing classmates on the playground, and being verbally abusive to some of his fellow students. We wanted to let you know so that we can try to avoid any future incidents.”
Obviously, the call was a lot lengthier than that, but you get the gist. The principal told me that some students had complained that my son was acting like a jerk during class, getting physical during recess, and, yeah, acting like a bully. It’s one of the many unfortunate traits of mine I hoped wouldn’t be passed down.
I was a bully, too. I was older than my son. It was right before high school that I started realizing I could get other kids to respect me through fear. Like my son, I wasn’t the biggest kid in class, but I was big enough to fake the tough guy thing and get away with it. I never beat anyone up or anything like that. Again, like my son, it was just a lot of trash talking and some rough horseplay to let the other kids know I was around, and that I wasn’t to be underestimated.
Before I sat down with my son to address the phone call, I thought about what made me a bully. My mother and father were fine parents. They provided for my sister and I. They kept us safe. Kept us fed. All that. But, they were cold when it came to recognizing accomplishments and heaping praise for a job well done. That is to say, they really didn’t do either.
I learned later that their rationale was preventative — they didn’t want us to get big heads, or become complacent with our accomplishments. But their methods were a bit off. So, I sought validation elsewhere, namely in class and on the playground. And, since I didn’t feel like I could rely on other adults — teachers and counselors — to acknowledge me, I had to make everyone see that I existed. I had to be in everyone’s face, and everyone had to know what I was capable of. It was classic insecurity that manifested itself in the form of name-calling and pushing kids around.
Back to my son. My wife and I do our best to make sure he knows he’s loved, respected, and appreciated. So, when I approached him regarding his situation, I wondered if I’d be shocked to learn we’d been just as unwarily icy as my parents. He and I sat down one afternoon, and the talk kicked off. He knew it was coming.
“Why?” I asked. “I know you’re not a mean kid. What made you want to give all these kids such a hard time?”
I was shocked to hear the word “insecurity” come out of his mouth as part of his explanation.
When I was that age, the concept of insecurity wasn’t even a thing. But he knew exactly what it was, and that it was the reason behind his behavior. On one hand, he said that his mother and I had always made him feel loved. Awesome. Great. On the other hand, his insecurity resulted in a lack of trust toward his classmates. When they said nice things to him, I learned, he didn’t believe them. He thought they were mocking him, or being insincere. “Patronizing” might be the best way to describe it.
Like I said, physically, my son is pretty average. Everything he does as a boy that age — throw a football, run laps, do pushups — he does in a very average way. So, while he isn’t bad enough to get mocked, he’s also not great enough to get heaps of praise. I think his behavior was a way to control exactly what the other kids noticed about him. If he couldn’t stand out for kicking a field goal, or hitting a double, he would make sure the other kids knew that at least he could push them during recess.
When we talked, I told him how impressed I was with his ability to articulate his feelings. Kids his age just don’t do that. The talk I had with my parents about my situation was just a bunch of ‘I dunnos’ and ‘I guesses.’ One of my son’s gifts, which his mother and I have come to recognize, is that he’s a brilliant speaker. Just a smart kid. Kids that age want to play, though, rather than talk. So, it’s totally understandable that his talent might go unnoticed — especially by him.
Bullying hasn’t been a problem for my son since the initial conversation. In fact, sometimes he tells me that he’s able to deescalate situations thanks to his ability to talk circles around his peers. They come to him for help with schoolwork because he always “sounds so smart.” I’m cool with that — very cool with that, actually.
These days, the world has enough bullies, and not enough people who can talk meaningfully. I hope our conversation will be one of the first of many. Not necessarily about bad behavior, but about his feelings, fears, and abilities. Those are the conversations every father loves to be a part of, especially with a kid who can talk the way my son does.
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