Fayetteville, N.C. — October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and I have a confession to make: I was a pre-teen bully.
No, not the kind of bully who shakes kids down on the playground for their lunch money, which I suppose is obsolete now, what with pre-paid cafeteria accounts and all.
Rather, I practiced the kind of bullying techniques that snotty, bratty mean girls specialize in: Teasing other girls about what they wore, excluding new kids from my group of oh-so superior friends, going out of my way just to wreak havoc on anyone and everyone’s happiness.
It was all truly disgusting, really, and I distinctly remember feeling disgusting about it even then, though not enough to put a stop to my behavior.
“But ….why???” was the question my tween daughter came up with after I reluctantly revealed my past.
I really had no intention of ever telling her this awful truth, but I’ve been hearing some things coming out of the fifth grade halls that have me a little concerned. Things like … not letting “outsiders” into groups, or choosing friendships based on outfits.
Some were things that happened to my daughter. Other things were behavior my daughter was guilty of.
And while none of it even comes close to the kind of bullying making headlines these days (thank goodness), I can’t help but wonder, is this where it begins? If they’re teasing about clothes and hairstyles now, does that turn into social media shaming when they get older? I don’t want to blow anything out of proportion, but I don’t want to ignore potential problems, either.
I decided to start the dialogue now. Of course, there’s education at school about bullying, but every time I’ve asked my kids about it, I’ve gotten less than lackluster responses. I wasn’t sure the message was getting through.
So, I deemed it time to grab my 10-year-old daughter’s attention: I told her that when I was her age, I actively did things to make people, particularly other girls, feel badly about themselves.
I described in detail the methods by which I excluded other girls from my group, how my friends and I relentlessly teased the new girl at school, making fun of her clothes, starting rumors about her, causing her to cry.
My daughter listened with rapt attention. And, when I finished my sordid tale, we were both fighting back tears, and she choked out her question.
Because I was in pain.
Because I felt so bad about myself, suffered from such low self-esteem, that the only way I could feel better was to bring others down into my misery.
Because I felt powerless in my life, and when I bullied at school, it made me feel important.
Only, here’s the truth: Making others feel pain does not lessen your own — in the end, you only feel worse.
Putting other people down did not make me better in anyone else’s eyes. In fact, it was quite easy for my insecurity to shine through. And power gained through hate never lasts — a stronger, better bully will always come along.
In the end, I asked her, what do you want to bring into this world? Do you want to be a source of meanness, negativity and sadness? Because being that won’t make you special — there’s an infinite amount of darkness already.
Or, would it feel better to be the light? To help make others happy, to contribute something healthy and useful and positive to those around you? Because those things, my dear, are always going to be needed in great quantities.
You don’t have to be friends with everyone. And you can wear your hair how you wish and dress in whatever clothes you like (while still following the dress code).
But I love you too much not to demand the following: Treat others with respect. Choose kindness as much as possible. And love yourself enough to let that light shine through.
My daughter took it all in, and she promised, she would be mindful of bullying behavior.
I fully expect to have the conversation again and again.
But I’m oh-so-glad I’ve started it now.
Jennifer is a mom of two and WRAL-TV assignment editor in Fayetteville. Her food obsession memoir, “Designated Fat Girl,” came out in 2010. Read more about Jennifer and her book on her website. She writes about motherhood and family-friendly events in Fayetteville here on Go Ask Mom.