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

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The Secret Behind Silent Success

There’s a joke that folks like to tell at various self-help conferences. It’s usually in the inspirational key-note speech. Two guys are out camping. One guy brings his fastest running shoes. The other guy brings heavy rugged hiking boots.

The boot guy asks the sneaker guy why he’s wearing sneakers. The sneaker guy says, “In case we meet a bear.”

The boot guy looks perplexed. “You’ll never be able to run faster than a bear,” he says.

“Don’t have to,” says the sneaker guy matter-of-factly, “I just have to run faster than you.”

If you haven’t read Part I of this two-part series (“A Surprise Gambit Leads to Victory and Yet Another Surprise – This Time for the Victor,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, September 12, 2019), you should before continuing. In this Part II, I’ll break down some of the key parts of the story in Part I to create a valuable template for parents interested in reducing the chances their child will be bullied. It’s not a sure-fire method, but it does improve the odds a bit.

To set the stage, we need to go back to the very setting that starts our story. In a small group of young children, the two oldest pair off to determine who’s the king of the mountain – who’s the “Alpha Male.”

The term “Alpha Male” comes from the field of ethology, which is the study of animal behavior. It generally refers to the dominant male in the group (there is also an “Alpha Female” – the dominant female in the group).

Pop psychology uses the same terminology to describe human social groups. It’s really a lot more complicated than that, but most people get the idea. Social psychologists prefer the term “leadership,” since that more accurately describes the intent and purpose of human interactions.

If you accepted it (or even thrived in it), you might remember it as “The Law of the Playground.” If you hated it (or felt victimized by it), you might call it “The Lord of the Flies.”

In either case, it represents a real-world example of a leadership test. It’s true in all competitive environments. Those who fail to recognize this choose to fail. No parent wants their child to fail.

You want your child to be a leader among peers, don’t you? (For that matter, who doesn’t?) You know your child is equipped with everything necessary to become the undisputed leader.

Any yet, what happens when your child doesn’t get to be a starter, doesn’t win an election, or doesn’t capture the lead role?

Whose fault is that?

Certainly not your child’s. Or yours.

There’s got to be something wrong with the system, with the selection process, with all the other adults in the room or kids in the playground.

Except probably not.

Just as you want your child to be a leader, so does every other parent want their children to be a leader.

News flash! The adults don’t have a say in this matter. It’s all up to the kids.

And one kid’s claim of “I’m being bullied” is just another kid’s leadership audition. That’s the real takeaway of the story in the first part.

But this doesn’t help your child avoid getting bullied. There’s another takeaway from Part I. It dovetails into the joke that begins this column.

It’s this: If you don’t want to get eaten, you don’t have to be the fastest, you just can’t be the slowest. The answer to not being bullied is to not be the most vulnerable target.

Sometimes that can’t be helped. If you’re the smallest, well, you’re a target. (Unless you have older siblings or cousins nearby.)

Without that familial beef, though, there is one thing your child can do, and it goes against everything current convention says. It’s the admonishment my father gave me: fight back. Defend yourself. Don’t bother looking for an adult to tell because all that will do is paint a bigger target on you next time as the bully now seeks vengeance.

If your child develops a reputation of challenging the bully (and it doesn’t have to be physical), no one will view your child as the most vulnerable target.

And it all begins in elementary school.

Here’s why.

There’s another story my father always used to tell me and my brother. It was about when he was little, when he was in elementary school. The guys used to always pick on this one kid. The kid did nothing, he just let them pick on him. Then the kid went away, maybe to finish his early grades in a nearby Catholic school.

He returned for high school. He, like any red-blooded American boy, wanted to play football. He went out for the team. That summer, before school officially started, the boys who wanted to play football gathered on the school field. They drilled, they conditioned, they did everything they could to impress the coaches.

At the end of practice, the sweaty, overworked boys marched slowly to the locker room. It was a small room lined with cold steel lockers, a couple of too short wooden plank benches, and a naked tile floor that got slimy slippery wet once the showers turned on.

What the room lacked, however, were coaches. Left on their own recognizance, the boys did what boys normally do. they played the “Alpha Male” game.

Don’t get me wrong. This is an important team-building exercise. It establishes who the true leaders are, not merely the coaches’ favorites. It’s a meritocracy-based system from which true championship teams emerge. Without it, a team is not a team.

Since the first move in any Alpha Male game is to establish dominance, the would-be team leaders looked around for some easy prey. They noticed that same little kid they always picked on in elementary school. All by himself. Struggling to get his shoulder pads off.

It was like shooting fish in a barrel.

They may have gotten older, bigger, and smarter, but some things never change.

The once little kid never did learn how to play this game. He just let the other guys continue to pick on him.

Eventually, he, like others before him in the same situation, quit the team. This relieved the coach, who was already short on players and couldn’t justify cutting him from the team even though he wanted to.

Why was the coach relieved?

It was for the safety of his players.

It wouldn’t have been fair to the rest of the boys to keep this kid on the team. How would any of them trust him to defend the team on the field when he didn’t even try to defend himself?

In the field of sports, in the marketplace of business, in the arena of politics, no team ascends when the opposition can isolate its weakest link.

If you don’t want to be bullied, there’s only one answer: Don’t be the weakest link.

That doesn’t mean you have to run the fastest. You just have to run faster than your slowest peer.

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