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What Happened When We Discovered Our Son Was Being a Bully

Everyone makes bad choices. What matters is that you realize your mistakes, apologize, and not repeat them again.

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“I was actually hoping I could talk to you about your son.”

On a Friday night sometime last year, I got a worried phone call from the mother of one of my son’s classmates. My husband and I had just settled in front of the TV, ready to tackle another season of Silicon Valley when my mortified facial expression put an end to what had been a perfectly pleasant day.

My 12-year-old son, as it turned out, had been “picking on” her son. However, I’m no idiot. Moms don’t just go around calling other moms because of harmless teasing. I knew perfectly well what that meant. My child – my well-behaved, precocious, and sometimes reckless child – was a bully.

This story was submitted by a Fatherly reader. Opinions expressed in the story do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Fatherly as a publication. The fact that we’re printing the story does, however, reflect a belief that it is an interesting and worthwhile read.

As the blood drained from my face and a litany of apologies left my mouth, my mind raced a million miles per second. How did this happen? Were there signs? How did we miss the signs? I should’ve never let my in-laws talk me into getting him a smartphone! Did it escalate to physical violence? The child’s mother, sensing the terror in my tone, assured me that the bullying had only been verbal. Her son was new to the school and smaller than the other kids – my son and his friends had been constantly picking on him because of his weight, telling him that he should go back to pre-K.

Truth be told, our boy was never the slow-to-warm-up type. Ever since he started crawling, he’s been on the go, deepening the worry lines on my forehead with his daredevil antics and tendency to come home with scraped knees every other day. Still, we were happy we had such an outgoing and confident little boy. But never would we have thought he would try to purposefully hurt another child.

Sitting on the couch, relaying what the child’s mom had told me to my husband, my emotions swung between pure embarrassment and worry that my son had taken the wrong path right as he was about to enter his teens. I was terrified that this problem would snowball into worse incidents as he got older, culminating in him ending up in juvie before he had a chance to graduate high school. That’s a little over the top, you might say. But my fears felt very real.

A deep sense of shame, however, came over my husband. He always took great pride in being a role model for our two boys, showing them by example how you’re supposed to treat others, why it’s important to have manners, and the importance of sticking up for those who can’t do so on their own. He didn’t have the best relationship with his own father growing up, so he was determined to do things differently. And the fact that our son had taken a completely different route at school made him feel like he’d absolutely failed in fulfilling the responsibilities of a father.

The next day, when we sat our son down to have the talk, he responded just how we had predicted. First he denied having anything to do with it, then tried to blame it on the other kids, made excuses as to why he participated, until he finally fessed up to bullying his classmate.

Throughout the entire conversation, I was blown away by the stern, yet calm approach my husband had taken. “It doesn’t matter if other kids in your class started it first,” he said, “You still decided to join in and it was a choice.” Slowly, it got through to our son that he needed to take responsibility for his actions. And even though everyone makes bad choices, what matters is that you realize your mistakes, apologize, and not repeat them again.

We took away his phone and computer privileges for a while, and explained how he would need to write a sincere apology letter to his classmate by the end of the weekend. We asked him to think about how it would make him feel to be on the receiving end of bullying, to really put himself in the shoes of someone new who had no friends and dreaded going to school every day.

Coming home from my Sunday afternoon grocery run, I found my husband and son going over his written apology at the dining room table. Save a few spelling mistakes, my husband seemed to be happy with the letter – it was sincere, and our son didn’t try to make excuses for his behavior. A few days later, we went over to his classmate’s house so he could apologize and deliver the letter in person.

What we thought would be a painfully awkward (but much-needed) encounter actually turned out to be a pleasant evening. The boys shook hands and later disappeared to compare their video game collections, leaving the grown-ups to their own devices. 

I was worried that the classmate’s mom would think we were terrible parents but she assured us she understood it was impossible to control your child’s every move – sooner or later, they’ll end up falling on their ass, and you got to let them see what that’s like.

A year later, I still haven’t received any new phone calls from concerned parents. Our son is still a little daredevil, though not at anyone else’s expense – unless you count the growing number of grey hairs on my head. And yet, it seems like a fair tradeoff for all the joy and laughter he brings to our life.

On top of being an expert in finances, Christine Carter still makes the time to be a loving mom who enjoys exploring her love of the culinary arts and writing for Find Your Mom Tribe. You can catch up with her on Facebook and Pinterest.