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One of the things that scares me the most about sending my boys off to school is what might happen if or when they get bullied. I know that they’re only 4- and 6-years-old, and it’s a little early for me to start worrying about something that may never happen, but it wears on my mind. Especially now that they’re off to class. Because that’s where it started for me.
I was overweight, clumsy, and a little too prone to let my imagination run wild in front of others. More than a little geeky, I was a perfect target for classmates who needed someone to take down a peg or two in an effort to build themselves up. My social intelligence wasn’t all that great either, so when the teasing and the taunting started, I really didn’t know how to defend myself.
That’s when I came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea; if they needed to tear me down to feel better about themselves, what would happen if I beat them to the punch? Take away their whipping boy by whipping on myself? If I took the fun out of it, surely they would move on. So I decided to stop defending myself. Keep quiet. Disregard the good grades and praise from teachers that might as well have put a laser target on my back. If I lost my step, I’d declare what a clutz I was. If I put more weight on, I’d be the first to call myself “a moose.” I even changed the way I walked, constantly making sure not to stand upright or swing my arms so much that it looked like I might actually be feeling good that day. I did everything I could think of to make sure that I didn’t come off as too confident.
I thought I had it all figured out. I was wrong. Not only did my new behavior fail to deter my tormentors, it opened up the door to another tormentor that beat me a hell of a lot worse than the bullies ever did. Me. I fell into a trap of my own making. I adopted a mindset that dictated that if I ever felt too good about myself or my situation, someone or something would come along to ruin it. I taught myself not to enjoy things, not to share myself with others, not to trust people. How could someone as pathetic as me ever trust anybody to actually care about them, after all? What chance did a loser like me ever have of leading a happy and fulfilling life?
Add in a serotonin imbalance and the cards were suddenly stacked against me. I became the ultimate self-defeater, and it was all because I somehow managed to internalize the very taunting and derision I was trying to protect myself from. Worse yet, I had this mindset so ingrained that any attempts to pull myself up, whether it be therapy, meds, or otherwise were sabotaged from the start. It took a lot of years and a lot of good, loving people reaching out to me to realize I had something worthwhile inside.
So what is the takeaway from this, now that I’m a dad? There will always be people who try to break down those they perceive as weaker. There will always be people who hurt so bad that the only relief they can hope for is to make someone feel even worse than they do. As bad as their voices are though, they’re nothing compared to the voice in your child’s head being just as cruel. Kids have a far better chance of getting away from the tormentors outside their heads than the ones inside.
Encourage them to be kind to themselves. To do the things they enjoy, that make them feel good, that they can take some pride in. Teach them to take a chance and share those things with others they admire. Do everything you can to help them make sure that the voices in their heads are supportive and loving ones, ones that will drown out all the noise coming from anyone wanting to hurt them. People, good and bad, come in and out of our lives. We always have to live with ourselves, though. My biggest hope for my boys is that they grow into the kind of people that they enjoy living with, because those are the only people guaranteed to never go away.
Please make sure you drive this point home with your children. Don’t let them make the same mistake I did. Teach them that the best response to someone trying to beat them down is to build themselves up. Becoming the type of person who loves themselves is the best revenge. And it’s the type of defense no bully can ever break. Inside or out.
An overgrown man-child and connoisseur of geek culture, Jeremy Wilson is striving to raise his two sons to become more responsible, self-actualized men than himself. So far they are not cooperating. You can read more of his writing at fatherhoodinthetrenches.com
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