Tuesday, January 24, 2012

WHAT TO DO ABOUT BULLYING—PART THREE

SUPPORTING THE VICTIM: HOW TO MAKE IT BETTER SOONER RATHER THAN LATER

This is one of a continuing series. You may read Part One, “A ‘VICTIM’ IMPACT STATEMENT,” here. To read Part Two, “UNDERSTANDING THE MINDSET OF THE ‘VICTIM’,”click here. Subsequent posts will deal with the bullies and the bystanders.

If we really want to make growing up more tolerable for gay and lesbian teens, we have to start years before that. There are books about two mommies and two daddies that teachers still shy away from. I can take a reasonable guess at what they’re thinking: Why stir up a fuss and get a church-affiliated parent group going to the media saying that I am promoting the homosexual agenda? Realistically, these books are rarely ordered for school libraries let alone used as part of classroom instruction. Right or wrong, we’re not there yet.

Nonetheless, the foundation of acceptance can be laid in elementary school. There are many books on differences and atypical friendships. There is a picture book about a squirrel with OCD and a classic from 1934 about a bull that would rather sniff flowers than fight. Unusual friendships can be found in a wordless book about a fox that loves a chicken as a companion not a main course, a series about a cat that is best buds with a mouse, a story about a tractor’s love for a cow and yet another cow story about befriending a pig. There is a princess who seems to do things backwards. There is a big wolf that discovers he likes the companionship of a little wolf. A favorite of mine involves a straight guy—literally, he’s drawn with all straight lines—who struggles for acceptance in a town where everyone and everything consists of scribbles.

I could go on. Children’s authors and publishers love the themes of differences and accepting yourself for who you are. Teachers do read these books to classes and use them as wonderful discussion starters. All that needs to happen is these discussion starters need to be used as comfortable springboards for dealing with the “That’s so gay” comments that children blurt at young ages. Gay describes two teen boys or two teen girls who love each other. It also describes two men or two women who love each other. Keep it simple. Talk about how the putdown would offend these people. Kids get it. Each time a gay putdown is uttered, deal with it. Teachers establish the climate of a classroom and a playground. How we deal with one another in respectful ways should take priority over the area of a circle. Let’s put things in perspective: I’ve never had to use that math formula as an adult, but I deal with differences every day.

Starting in grade five, the gay putdowns increase, particularly in the change room after gym and on the sports field. Many who taunt learn to whisper their insults, but teachers need to continue to create an environment where putdowns can be reported and addressed. Some of the most impulsive boys never learn how to speak quietly. Their whispers would wake a hibernating bear. More teachers now address comments that are brought to them, but that is not enough. You don’t have to be an eavesdropper to pick up on inappropriate language and gay putdowns. Teachers and coaches need to consistently address what they hear, not just what is reported. Any leeway will only snowball into something bigger. How a teacher deals with what is heard makes all the difference. If talks lead to punishment, the person who reports is deemed a tattletale or a rat. If the issue is dealt with in a way to foster understanding rather than to impose punishment, then there is no resentment (or wrath) imposed on the person who reports the putdowns.

In British Columbia, teachers and other adults can cite the law to support their talks about homophobia. The B.C. Human Rights Code states that it is illegal to discriminate based on a person’s sexual orientation. Having legal protection against homophobia is vital. Sexual orientation must be expressly included in any laws designed to prevent discrimination. Express mention gives tentative teachers something very clear to rely upon. Laws bring validation but they also provide vital support. Parents cannot successfully accuse schools of “promoting the homosexual agenda” when laws clearly state that discrimination is not allowed.

To recap, there is literature to support meaningful discussions about accepting people with differences. Fictional accounts can be safe springboards for meaningful discussion. Many picture books contain messages that can be applied to a wide range of situations. As well, in many jurisdictions, protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation is enshrined in legislation or through court rulings. The legal language provides clear support for creating an environment that disallows homophobia. More than anything, adults need to take the lead. They need to address putdowns in order to foster an atmosphere of acceptance where all children can thrive without fear of bullying. No more turning the other way. No more pretending not to hear or see. No more saying, “Just ignore it.” No more responses that are the equivalent to “Buck up.” Our young people deserve more from the adults entrusted with leading them and shaping them into respectful, responsible citizens.

5 comments:

JustAMike said...

I agree RG. A mentor of mine once told me that discrimination and hatred must be taught - we're not born with those concepts so the opposite must be true as well . . . that tolerance and acceptance must be taught at an early age so the negatives don't prevail.

Rick Modien said...

You raise some very valid points, RG, and I see the potential of what you suggest to work.

That said, I also think you've over-intellectualized a very emotional issue for many people. The truth is, teachers can do all they want, even citing the B.C. Human Rights Code, but until parents get it, little will happen.

If schools foster the type of environment you advocate, yet parents continue to spew their religious rhetoric, the scope of bullying will not change. I respect the role you write schools can play in creating a greater degree of acceptance, especially among younger children, who are more impressionable and likely to get the message.

But, if mom and dad at home teach those same children, via their own misinformed religious convictions, that homosexuality is wrong, change will not happen. You can't have parents saying one thing and schools saying another--which, I don't have to tell you, would never happen anyway, because parents won't allow schools to, as they say, "raise my children for me and instill in them values that aren't mine ."

The home (and most definitely organized religion) has to catch up to the law of the land (where we have the Human Rights Code, even legalized marriage). Otherwise, children will be subjected to confusing messages. But you can be sure what parents want will supersede what schools do every time.

It all starts at home.

Rural Gay said...

If we could change things on the homefront, yes that would be ideal. However, the fact that some homes foster discriminatory viewed couched in religious lingo, does not mean that schools cannot make a difference.

I see children living in two different worlds every day. Even at a young age, they are capable of learning that the expectations in one environment may not match a different environment. (For instance, they quickly adjust to different expectations from job share teachers.) Learned (intolerant) behaviors from the home cannot be accepted in a more diverse school setting. This is where new learning occurs and other perspectives are introduced.

Many ways of interacting are better grasped in a school than in the home. The range of social circumstances is greater. An individual teacher's impact lingers, whether it is negative or positive. I don't feel it is constructive to point fingers at a family and believe that children are incapable of distinguishing environments and ultimately adapting some beliefs that conflict with their parents.

Rick Modien said...

Yes, but for everything you've said, I know most parents, when faced with the idea schools could introduce concepts inconsistent with their beliefs (i.e.: their religious beliefs), will consistently block the attempts of schools to, as they put it, raise their children.

Interestingly, I think many parents don't raise their children particularly well on a number of different fronts; however, tell them schools intend to teach tolerance toward homosexuality, and watch them wake up and stand up for what they fundamentally believe is their role in the family unit.

This is a tough one, RG. I understand and accept everything you've written on this matter (as I would), but the environment at home will need to change before schools, and teachers, can take on the role of engendering a greater degree of acceptance in classrooms.

But, in the end, none of that should stop the schools from trying. (Can I also add the school system is overburdened as it is. Should it really be the school's responsibility to teach tolerance and acceptance of differences between people, including homosexuality?) I'm just asking...)

Rural Gay said...

Hi Rick,
Schools have to teach this every day. It is not an extra. When kids come in after recess and after lunch complaining about putdowns, the issues must be dealt with. Students don't learn unless these supposed distractions are acknowledged.

Using a wide range of literature can be part of a proactive approach to support learners. Fictional characters can be safe starters to meaningful discussions.

Some parents will fault schools. Some other people will fault families. I'm not into the whole chicken and egg thing. It's the kids that matter. We may not always reach the bully in a way to change behavior but non-familial adults can provide ways to acknowledge and validate children who feel like outcasts.

To shift all expectation and responsibility on any one entity or group is unfair, but each reasonable adult must do what he or she can. Otherwise, he or she is complicit in allowing bullying problems to continue.