1: Heartbroken

This is the first in a series about my son’s recent experience with bullying at school.

Sam has always been different, but this year he’s different in a new way. After being a skinny kid all his life, about a year ago Sam started gaining weight. So now, in addition to being the boy with long hair who doesn’t play sports, the third grader who loves opera and medieval architecture, the kid with celiac disease and sensory integration dysfunction and a sleep disorder, he’s also the fat kid. And this week, his peers let him know exactly how bad he should feel about himself.

Monday: Kyla, never an unkind word before, starts calling Sam “fat.”

Tuesday: Adam, until-now oblivious to Sam, says, “You’re fat,” and “You’re a girl.”

Wednesday: Jonah, who has never bothered Sam in the past, tells Sam he has “big boobs.” Jonah explains: “When you look in the mirror and see long hair, your brain gets confused and thinks you’re a girl, so you grew boobs.”

And there has always been Janette, mocking Sam’s gender expression since the first day of kindergarten. Last year she was joined by Joe; together they have taunted Sam about his long hair and weight for all of third grade. This week, their meanness escalated in intensity as the two of them snickered at Sam whenever they saw him.

But Sam’s been fat all year. He’s been gender-nonconforming since kindergarten. And most of these kids have never paid attention to him before. So what happened this week in the collective third grade consciousness?

Does it matter?

 

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Comments

  1. Farah Mendlesohn says

    Saw this on twitter this morning and book marked it to come over and say “hi”.

    I think you need to talk to the teacher. I am wondering what they have been reading or doing. I was a round kid. It was utterly, utterly trivial and I bet the teacher conerned would be horrified, because I suspect she was only trying to share out parts (and ironically give me, the clever, articulate one, the big speaking part), but my self-image problems began when at the age of six I was cast as the Ugly Duckling in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, and my best friend was cast as the Swan.

    I have celiac disease by the way, so sending a wave out to you.

    • shoffman says

      Thanks for coming over Farah! I hope you stick around. Your story really tugged at my heartstrings…often adults have no idea what will be hurtful (although the Ugly Duckling? Really? How could she not know??). That’s part of anti-bullying work, really looking at and confronting our assumptions and trying to understand how they impact kids.

      We HAVE been talking to Sam’s teacher. She is fabulous. And yet the school has allowed a culture of bullying to develop, and it’s going to take widespread, systematic work to break it down–it’s more than one teacher can do.

  2. says

    I don’t know. I know that I have seen bullying go in spurts like that at my kids’ school, although the school does an AMAZING job of dealing with it. Empathy is part of the curriculum.

    I think there are tipping points — it’s like a domino effect. One rotten kid leads to two, and all of a sudden it’s four.

    It sucks. I’m so sorry.

    • shoffman says

      Thanks…

      Yes, we’ve hit the domino effect. There’s a culture of kindness until…there’s not. Same with my tolerance for the school dragging its feet.

      Thus this series, which is going to help me figure out what to do.

      • Girlyboymama says

        This is awful, both for you guys and for Sam. How frustrating it must be! My heart is aching for Sam. I hope the school has been made aware of what’s going on.

        You hit the nail on the head about kindness until there’s not (and your patience). I understand this on a very personal level (i.e. my own tolerance level).

        Is there a school counselor you can engage in this to help spread a “no bullying” campaign at the school? Their allowing this to happen to Sam is unacceptable.

  3. meg says

    I’m sorry. I feel heartbroken for your family too. I was subject to a lot of bullying growing up. My mom put pressure on me to conform. SHe would say, “I just don’t understand why you don’t have any friends, I had tons of friends growing up.” My point is, she never supported me in being my own person, ever. You are doing that for Sam. He needs your support more than ever now. I think you are a great mom. I’m sorry kids are such jerks.

  4. says

    I’m so sorry. This brings back memories from when I was the same age. God how those taunts hurt me. I felt like everyone hated me and often cried myself to sleep at night. At least you are aware of your child’s taunts and can be there to help support and soften the blows. I hid my taunting from my parents and as a result felt very alone.

    Hugs to you and Sam.

  5. Patrick@atwoodgroup.com says

    Of course it matters, Sarah. While some teasing is a normal (and expected) part of growing up, it can turn into something worse. Trust me on this. Administrators, teachers, aides, child care givers and the like are increasingly becoming the de facto guardians to generations of children. Now is the time for them to step in and find a way to help their charges become aware and accepting of the differences they see around them. Do Sam’s teacher’s need to be enlightened?

    • shoffman says

      Yes, the teasing matters. A great deal. What I meant was I don’t know if it matters WHY it’s happening.

      The teachers are lovely. They confront bullying whenever it is reported. But they only have so much time, as the administration tells them all the things they need to cover in class, and little is left over for anything else. So what’s needed is the administration prioritizing the social-emotional work required to prevent bullying, so that the teachers can make time in their schedules to focus on this work.

  6. Juliana says

    YES it matters very much ! I can tell you why the “third grade consciousness ” has risen on Sam. The children are ending their last year of innocence. Forth grade is approaching and from my experience the bullying became uncontrollable in forth grade. My son Weston is in 5th grade and the last two years have been deplorable.The bullying is more often and way more aggressive. The scary part is the boys now target him in places that are unsupervised, like the bus, bathroom or recess. Don’t let up on the school ! Make them accountable for every horrible incident Sam endures.
    We love you Sarah Hoffman you are a wonderful outlet for many family in the same boat ! Take one day at a time.

    • shoffman says

      That is so, so scary. I am so sorry to hear about Weston’s challenges. So awful. And, though it’s frightful, I am grateful for the warning. We have not really understood, at any grade, what comes next.

      And thank you for the love!!!! It means so much.

  7. Jenni says

    My heart breaks with yours. So far at 5 my pink boy is proud of his individuality. But things like this make me so mad. Why are so many children teased like that and why aren’t other adults as outraged when children are ridiculed. Hugs to you both.

  8. says

    This scares me! Douglas is very careful about what he wears to school and he is only in preschool, he tells me he loves skinny jeans, tight t-shirts, nail polish, and lots of jewelry but he refuses to wear them in fear of being teased…PRESCHOOL omg children shouldn’t need to worry about this stuff
    i am so sorry that your son is going through this!
    i was teased from kindergarten on for anything and everything, my hair was too straight, my parents were too strict, i cried too easily, my boobs were too big, the list goes on…they always found something and they knew how to torment me….and they were Christians
    my heart goes out to your son and to you

    • shoffman says

      Our school is also religious; we’ve learned that this does not mean as much as we’d hoped. Our school talks about “radical kindness” as a core value. It’s not that they don’t believe in kindness…it’s just that they don’t get what it takes to implement policies and practices that build a true culture of kindness.

      • Shauna says

        Thank you!!! My son goes to a catholic school. Ive recently gotten the impression, that because my son is only in grade one, that my concerns about early childhood bullying, are trivial. Ive used examples of situations my son has been in, and i get the, “we didn’t see it in the classroom, so it never happened response, and they are only 6!” my son, in my opinion is not being bullied, and my use of using past situations was not to come across as a paranoid mother, but to enlighten other parents, and the school about how the innocence of these behaviours could turn into more, if the younger grades aren’t prepared and taught. I feel its a bit of a let down on the schools part, for not implementing some policy that sets out what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. Using religious terms, and talking about being kind to one another, is one thing, and ok, but what are the consequences, how can the parents, kids etc feel comfortable talking openly about issues, w/o feeling like they are failing, or left helpless with no options or support?

        • shoffman says

          I very much believe that anti-bullying education begins, at the elementary level, in kindergarten. If we don’t address the bias that is already ingrained in these kids the moment they enter school, their ideas of what is acceptable gender behavior will only solidify, and the work of undoing it is that much harder. The real place to start the work is in preschool!

  9. says

    Kids really know how to be so mean. Why now? No way to really know for sure, but I’m sure these things can go in spurts. Which hopefully means the energy for this latest series of attacks will move it’s attention to something else before too long. Until then, lots of (((hugs))) from over here.

  10. says

    I am sorry, Sarah. I think, though, that it’s a constant effort and you and that heroic teacher are doing what needs to be done by all: not letting up! Kids need to explore. Sometimes they explore meanness. You might ask their parents, see what is going on at home as well. There are so many influences. I remember I explored meanness when I was in the fourth grade and even 45 years later I pretty much cry when I think about it. Though I don’t blame them as such (at least, not much), they were working up to a divorce at the time. I suppose the bully kids will suffer for it also.

    • shoffman says

      We are definitely not letting up.

      It’s likely that exploring meanness, as you’ve so eloquently put it, is in fact a natural part of becoming a person. What I want to see our school do is provide a framework for how our kids can develop into kind, accepting, insightful people despite the natural curiosity about what happens when we are unkind.

  11. Sarah S says

    So sorry. I remember grade 3 being the year my youngest son informed me he would no longer wear stripes or turtlenecks…I think it is a time of more self-consciousness, for individuals and those around them. We dealt with bullying of our oldest on and off the whole time he was in school. No obvious markers for him, just not quite cool enough, I guess. Once a kid gets labeled, it’s hard to get rid of it. And I don’t want to bum you out, but we tried everything from grade 4 to grade 7, and finally pulled him out at the tail end of that grade, home-schooled him for the remainder of the year, and found a new school for him. When I asked him recently–he’s 22 now– if he felt we had “done enough” for him during that time (I was curious, given how much bullying has been in the news), and he said that all of the teacher meetings, counselling, etc made no difference to him, the only thing that helped was leaving that particular school. I don’t know where you are, or what your schooling options are, but if there’s an option that takes bullying more seriously, or has a reputation as a place for individuals, I’d seriously consider it. The bullying my son endured really shaped him, and I think was a major contributor to a very unhappy outlook on life as a teen for a few years. Schools often tolerate toxic environments that would never be allowed in adult work places, and the kids truly take that awful stuff to heart. One teacher can’t hold back the tide, it has to be school-wide.
    I truly hope your son can find a place that nurtures him.

  12. Jill says

    I am getting my Master’s degree in Education in August, and have studied a lot about relational aggression. Unfortunately, the behavior by the children is not really abnormal for the age. Developmentally, it is appropriate for these children to think like this, the only thing is that to express their feelings to Sam is not socially appropriate. However, it is up to adults to teach children about individual differences.

    Two developmental stages are operating here. School aged children like to divide things into groups – this is normal for children as well as animals. It creates an us v. them mentality, and helps children organize the world, so they have consistency. So having Sam be a boy with characteristics and personality traits, some of which are cross-gendered, really throws them off. Even children who were friends with him before are now maturing and starting to be confused.

    Also, at around age 8 – 10, children start to compare themselves to others, and may gauge how they feel about themselves based upon what others think or do. Personally, I think this is the saddest stage of growing up. So, these children are becoming aware of themselves as individuals with a self concept, as well as differences in Sam, all at the same time that Sam is most fragile bc he is in these same stages too. It is a perfect storm.

    So while not trying to sound cold and objective, this is just child development. However, there is no excuse for bullying and children can learn that we are progressive and are accepting of individual differences. Perhaps the teacher can show that ALL children have cross gendered traits, and therefore, this is completely normal. For example, sports are traditionally for boys, but now many girls are applauded for their athleticism. Traditionally, boys are not care takers, but I am sure there are many boys in the class who care for animals and pets. Just some tips. I also suggest that teacher read some books to the class which deal with bulling and individual differences.
    I believe you will LOVE “have you filled your bucket today” by carol McCloud, and “The big Orange Splot” by Danial Manus Pinkwater. Those are MUST HAVES for anyone, especially children ages 4 – 10 can learn from them.

    thanks,
    Jill
    xoxo to Sam

    • shoffman says

      Jill, thanks so much for this. I think that this is a great analysis of this developmental stage. As I’ll say in an upcoming post, we’re hitting a combination of developmental stage and lack of education, so that the kids don’t know what to do with the questions and thoughts they’re having about themselves and each other. This is why anti-bullying education is so crucial now.

  13. Lin says

    Have you talked with the parents of the bullies? Sometimes the parents need to know that their children are not the innocent little angels they once thought.

    • shoffman says

      We have talked to the parents that we are friends with. We are considering talking to those we are not. It’s a really tough call. Parents are often horrified and ashamed, and some are defensive, and we often don’t know how dfferent parents will respond. It’s a scary thing for us to do and risky as well (we’ve lost friends over this), and it’s really not our job. It’s the school’s job to teach these kids how to treat others while they are in school, and to handle issues that come up at school. That said, since they are not doing their job, it falls to us. So, we proceed: fear, risk, and all. To protect our kid.

      • April says

        Sarah, please reach out to the other parents. If it were my child doing the bullying, I would definitely want to know. Worst case, they do nothing–which leaves you in the same position you are now. Best case, they talk to their kids about empathy and express their own disappointment in their children, which I think goes pretty far. When I was in sixth grade, I faced some mild bullying by a couple of girls for about a month. At one point came home with a torn sweater and when my mom asked, I told her about it. She called one of the girl’s mother, who she knew peripherally, and it stopped immediately. I know my situation is vastly different than what poor Sam is facing but I think talking to the offending children’s parents, with an expectation that something be done, is in order. The other things you’re exploring in the other posts–particularly the implementation of an anti-bullying curriculum–are very important, but don’t skip this critical step.
        Best of luck to you and especially to Sam.

  14. Windy says

    Bullying is such a terrible thing, and to think that some people actually believe that under certain circumstances that it’s okay, or that we as a society have decided that a certain amount of it is “to be expected.” Instead of accepting and tolerating any amount of bullying, wouldn’t it be better to do away with it altogether? I mean, why is the first reaction when finding out someone was made fun of for wearing glasses or being overweight, “It happens” ? It shouldn’t happen.

    My pink boy will be entering Kindegarten next year, and I worry very much for his self-esteem and his safety. I plan on being very much involved and working with the school, but I know, that as much as they might enforce a “no tolerance” policy for bullying, that kids can be mean.

    I’m going to try encouraging a curriculum of positive self-esteem, embracing differences, and cultural backgrounds. Maybe this is something they can implement at Sam’s school? I read somewhere about a classroom that had each student write something they enjoy/appreciate about another student every day before school ended. They would have to pick a different student each day. Maybe something like that could be helpful?

    I believe a big portion falls onto parents. I know it’s not always the case, but I think a lot of behavior is learned at home. Whether a parent means to encourage bullying or not, it can some times be seen in what they might say about someone else when they don’t think little ears are listening or even in how they treat other people. I know some behavior is also learned by peers. A big part of it is not wanting to be the one bullied, therefore they join the “dark side” to keep themselves from being targets. Maybe the teacher can point out to the students that even if they’re not the ones doing the bullying, simply by going along with it or turning their heads, they too, are participating. As for parents, maybe they don’t know that their child is being a bully. Is this something that can be discussed with them?

    My heart goes out to you. I have a feeling I’m going to be in your shoes very soon. We’ve already had to learn how to deal with a couple of people, including adults, who have decided to say negative things about the way our son expresses himself. I’m not sure it gets easier, but I’d like to think that it will with people such as yourself bring awareness to it. Thank you for being your son’s biggest cheerleader, and in doing so, being mine as well.

  15. says

    Utterly heartbreaking. I am so very very sorry for Sam. My heart goes out to him. And I do hope you are able to partner with his school to get to the bottom of this. Thinking of you both….

    • shoffman says

      I’m hoping for the same. I don’ t know that all is lost, that they can’t come around and help protect Sam, but I am so disheartened. Thanks for the good thoughts…

  16. says

    Sarah,

    One of the things that helps victims of bullying is to teach them how to cognitively reframe the bullying. This means that Sam will learn how to BELIEVE that he is not being bullied because he is overweight or because he has long hair; rather, he is being bullied because other children are choosing to be cruel. Victims who learn to take the blame off their own perceived flaws and reassign it to the bully’s lack of empathy have far fewer negative effects from episodes of taunting. Additionally, kids who are being bullied find a lot of relief from accessing even one good friend. Does Sam have someone to talk to? Consider getting him involved in an extracurricular group with totally different kids so that he can have a “safe” place.
    I’m sorry for your pain; call if you need to. I also can recommend some books for you. XO, Carrie

    • shoffman says

      Carrie, thank you so much for this! We do talk to Sam about this idea, how someone who is mean is not really saying anything about Sam; they’re saying something about themselves. But we don’t have great language for it. I like the idea of reframing the interactions as a lack of empathy on the part of the bully. (And we saw this at work when one child was confronted by a teacher about calling Sam names, and she was horrified to realize she’d hurt him. She just did not put herself in his shoes until the teacher called her on it, and then she did–she’s not a bad kid, just had a lapse). Sam does have friends, and even some who have defended him against this recent spate of mean comments (LOVE those kids), and recently he’s been building a friendship with a kid outside of school who has a common interest. I can see where these things are immensely helpful.

      I would love to get some book recommendations from you….and I can’t wait for YOUR book!!!

  17. says

    Sarah, I am so glad you are writing so honestly about this– and I sure think Carrie has a wonderful idea! I am thinking about the person whose son said the best thing they did was take him out of school…I was bullied, too, and I agree that leaving (because we moved, it was just a lucky thing) helped more than anything else. But what also helped was having a completely separate world of friends, via an activity that none of the mean kids happened to be into, that involved mostly kids from other schools and places with no idea that at my own school, I was deeply uncool. I hope Sam has that, or finds it soon. Good luck.

  18. Melissa T. says

    I am so sorry to hear this Sarah. I had hoped that there was some corner of the world where bullying was not a part of a childs life. I guess it is everywhere.

    I got tired of fighting the battle and we now home school. The last straw for me was when the principal told me the teasing was my fault because of his long ponytails and the pink and pastel colors he wore.

    So very sad.

    • shoffman says

      Well, John, P. there are lots of reasons.

      When kids are bullied, what needs to change is the bullying behavior, not the aspect of the victim that the bully has decided to pick on. Should a kid with glasses stop wearing them because they get called “four-eyes”? Should a tomboy quit the sports team because someone calls her “dyke”? Should a kid with dark skin try to lighten their flesh, or a teenager with ethnic facial features have surgery, because someone calls them terrible names?

      Perhaps some people think that we should go to extraordinary lengths to fit in. But I believe that, instead, we should go to extraordinary lengths to bring compassion to a culture that has shown both an incredible lack of compassion for some members of society AND an incredible ability to change. Witness women’s rights, racially integrated schools and public spaces, the growing support for gay marriage.

      Plus, when a victim changes one aspect of themselves to suit a bully, typically the bully finds something else to pick on.

      Why else should I not “have him lose weight”? Well, there’s the futility of weight-loss diets and the harm they can cause to a child’s physical and emotional wellbeing. Sam eats a healthy diet and gets lots of exercise, which are the foundation of good physical health. His health is what’s important to us as his parents–not his weight. (To be clear, we have checked out his sudden weight gain with our doctor and an endocrinologist, to make sure there isn’t anything to be concerned about; there’s not.) It’s not hard to imagine what severely restricting his food, which is what it would take to reduce his body size, would do to Sam’s growing body and brain, not to mention his self-esteem. For a kid who deals with bullying already, it’s hard to fathom how this would be a positive parenting choice. The alternative–to counter bullying whenever and wherever we can, to practice and teach him positive health habits, to teach him to love himself as he is–is not an easy, nor a perfect, approach. But it’s by far the best way we know how to parent.

      • Farah says

        John

        To add to all the above, Sam has celiac. Celiac messes severely with the metabolism. When he gets older he can balance some of this with exercise but the current evidence with children is that it does not necessarily make a lot of difference as much of the weight simply reflects different growing patterns (much like basset hound puppies whose ears grow faster than the rest of them). I have celiac. I was a very fat child. By 11 I was one of the tallest and thinnest in the class.

        I would also reiterate the issue that weight and health are not as connected as people think. At 5′ 3″ I have a BMI of 29.5 and weigh around 73kg. I can bench press all of that, and take a US 14 in a skirt. I was actually fatter when I was 10kg lighter.

        • shoffman says

          Thanks for your support Farah. I didn’t know this about celiac kids. Doctors have said that Sam has gained weight because of his sleep disorder. Regardless of the reason for his weight gain, as Tedra so eloquently said, whether or not there is a medical issue involved, starting kids down the path of worrying whether their body is acceptable to their peers is sending the message that the bullies are right.

      • tedra says

        Yeah, I cannot imagine letting–let alone “encouraging”–a kid that age to *lose* weight. Kids need to grow. Growing involves (among other things) gaining weight.

        Which isn’t to say that there aren’t kids with health problems of *all* sorts, some of which may very well include abnormal body weights (including being too thin, by the way, as well as too fat). But that’s the kind of thing a doctor needs to diagnose, not third graders (or internet strangers). And certainly if a kid has a health problem, encouraging him/her to not have it is not terribly helpful.

        Which leads to the final (and obvious) point: starting a little kid on worrying about whether his body *looks* right to peers is certainly bad for his mental health. As is bullying. The last thing any kid needs is for his parent(s) to respond to bullying by sending the explicit or implicit message that the bullies are right.

        • shoffman says

          Right, yes, and right!! Thank you so much for this eloquent response. Your last point, that encouraging our children to change their bodies so that they look the way they think others want them to look–or fear that they look the way bullies say they do– sends the message that the bullies are right. So well said.

  19. Eliz. says

    Speaking as a former fat kid who was teased and bullied for a good many years throughout school, the “just lose weight” thing is a crock. When I lost the weight in high school I was still the same person, still the same target I had always been. The weight loss didn’t change anything. Only graduating and starting college changed my perception of myself from a fat unlovable blob to a reasonably lovable person –and therefore changed others’ perception of me. The pounds aren’t the problem. The bullying is the problem.

  20. says

    The question–why not lose weight–kind of speaks to the issue that acceptance takes a lot of work, a collective responsibility to let us find & experience the beauty in our differences from one another.

  21. mmahern says

    The Southern Poverty Law Center has created a video on Bullying for use in school to get the kids and teachers dealing with this. I have not seen it but everything they have put out before is great stuff. (such as the “Teaching tolerance” curriculum) I’m sure can get more information by contacting them.

    • shoffman says

      I love the Teaching Tolerance program. We’ve been asking our school to use their resources for four years.

  22. Billie says

    Maybe you could shift your attention to the kids who are nice to him and don’t make fun of him. I was a substitute teacher and some of the schools would say “catch them doing something good”, rather than focussing on the bad behavior. But I still understand your plight and fight.

  23. Paul says

    I’m so sorry for Sam and your family that bulling has intensified this year.

    I was the subject of bullying for being fat and smart and un-athletic. Things were even worse for me, because my younger sister was pretty, popular, mean to me, and also emotionally unstable, so that all of my parent’s attention, and therapy, went towards my sister – my parents were not there for me – it seemed to them that I was the competent and self sufficient one who didn’t need help, and didn’t ask for it, either – I stuffed all the painful emotions inside.

    The most important thing, I think, is to keep letting Sam know that you are there for him and that you love him – just what comes naturally.

    It will get better! Life is SO good now, and has been since sometime after middle school.

    Paul

  24. says

    A reader wrote in:

    How extremely horrible! My heart goes out to Sam. Bullying is unconscionable, and those children who do it need to be severely disciplined. And yes, it doesn’t matter why. The fact that it happened needs to be dealt with so it does not happen again. Children can be more hurtful than adults.

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