Open House Tip for Elementary School Parents (Part I): How to Reduce the Odds Your Child Will Be Bullied in High School (and Middle School)

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A Surprise Gambit Leads to Victory and Yet Another Surprise – This Time for the Victor

It was the summer between second and third grade when it happened. We were visiting my parents’ friends.

They were a nice couple. About the same age as my parents. They had a couple of boys around the age of my younger brother Kenny and me.

They had a nice house. It had a covered open porch in the back. Beyond this was an expansive backyard. I remember it being much larger than our backyard. But maybe not. Things always seem a lot bigger when you’re small.

As the adults had a pleasant visit sipping cocktails and chatting on the porch that warm summer night, their boys did what little boys usually do. Chased each other in the spacious backyard. Yelled about who knows what. In addition, and this shouldn’t surprise you, the two older boys would exhibit what we might call in later years, an “Alpha Male” confrontation.

In case you’re wondering, some suggest the term “Alpha Male” derives from Dr. Rudolf Schenkel’s 1947 paper “Expression Studies on Wolves.” He never used “Alpha” to describe the dominant male, he instead used the work “lead.” In addition, we also said there was also a lead female.

But in the backyard that late 1960s summer evening, as the sun began to duck behind the tree line and a cool dampness slowly seeped through the nooks and crannies of the twilight, two young boys – not wolves – squared off.

It started with my counterpart challenging not me, but Kenny. Kenny was obviously smaller than me. He pushed Kenny to the ground. Kenny lay prone, ceding authority to this older boy.

That’s the way it usually is. Those competing for dominance first exert it against the weak. It’s like firing a warning shot across the bow of a ship. They’re letting you know they’re coming for you.

Typically, the challenged – in this case, me – would respond by selecting a similarly lesser target. His brother was there. He was expecting it. Like he had been there before.

But our parents didn’t raise us like that. We were taught to respect others – no matter their size – and never, absolutely never, use physical force. Mom would often say to us, “Only boys who aren’t smart enough to talk with their mouths choose to talk with their fists.”

Kenny stayed on the ground because of this non-violence imperative. He knew if he got up, he’d either have to use words or fight.

Kenny wasn’t much of a talker. And we were forbidden from fighting. So on the ground he stayed.

Besides, he knew he had an ace up his sleeve. He had a ringer on his side. Someone who knew how to talk (perhaps to a bit of an extreme).

That would be me. I had the onus of the older brother. I was there to protect.

That aegis, however, did not include physical combat. And at this point in the game, the rules of the playground (or the backyard) demand my next move was a comparable counter play. I was expected to push his little brother down. But my mother said if I did that, I would concede I wasn’t smart.

So I didn’t.

Instead, I played a different move, a surprise move, a whole, new, unexpected gambit.

(I learned the power of this tactic while playing chess with my much older uncle.)

My opponent naturally didn’t expect this. Caught unawares, he panicked. Things escalated quickly as he repeatedly failed to match my confident words. Frustration at its peak, he succumbed to prove my mother’s hypothesis.

He pushed me to the ground.

As I fell, the aura of victory surrounded me. That inner glow shattered when I felt the sharp pain of a blunt stab penetrate my back. My foe had unwittingly pushed me onto the small remnant stump of a recently removed bush. Writhing in pain, I could see guilt wash over his face.

He was mortified at what he had done. He didn’t mean to hurt me. He only meant to subdue me. He eyes shifted to and fro, trying to fathom if the adults, distant in the small talk and Rob Roys, had seen him perform his awful deed.

I had him right where I wanted him. Kenny knew that, too. We both sprang to our feet, although me a little less certain of it as my back really hurt. I boldly proclaimed to my worried adversary, “I’m going to tell your father what you did!”

And I did.

What happened next, I never expected.

My rival’s father immediately got up, yelled at his son, and apologized profusely to my parents. He did it in a way that suggested he had practiced it before. He sent away his son in punishment.

That didn’t surprise me. I expected that reaction. I had hoped that would be the reaction. I glowered in a silent “I told you so” when that reaction became reality.

It was my own father’s reaction that shocked me.

While my mother demurely accepted the man’s apology in as polite a fashion as possible, my father ignored it. Instead, it was his turn to stand up and rage.

Only he didn’t direct this rage at the father. Neither did he direct this rage at the son.

No, the full furry of that rage fell solely – and squarely – on my scrawny shoulders.

“Why did you let him push you down!” opened this fusillade. “How come you didn’t defend yourself!” “Don’t you know how to behave!” Even Kenny couldn’t escape the scorn. My father turned his anger towards him, “And where were you? Why didn’t you help your brother?”

Why didn’t you help your brother? That one really hurt. That was my job. I was the older brother. And I was already defending him!

But then came the unkindest cut of all. My father slowly twisted again in my direction. He paused for greatest effect. I thought maybe part of that effect was to apologize to his hosts for the dishonor I had brought (maybe less toward their son, but more towards him). Then he said the words I’ll never forget: “What were you thinking coming here to tell his father. This was your problem. You’re supposed to be smart. You’re supposed to be responsible for yourself. You can’t always depend on others fighting your battles for you. You’ve got to fight your own battles.”

Yes, he used the “F” word – “fight.”

Kenny and I looked at each other. We thought we weren’t supposed to fight. Now we’re getting yelled at for not fighting? (Yes, although I took the brunt of it, we knew our father was directing his ire at the both of us.)

But the lesson was quite instructive. (It had to be. How else could you explain why I remember it so vividly today?)

It was a lesson so valuable every child should benefit from it.

And they will, because next week I break down the subtle points of this story. That way, every parent brave enough to teach this lesson to their own children will have the template to do so.

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