MEDFORD, N.J. — My five-year-old son is good at many things. Standing up to bullies isn't one of them. His mom isn't good at it either, and therein lies the rub.
Both his father and I suffered through school as victims of verbal abuse and other abuses. I was chubby, my husband played chess. It's a wonder we both survived.
Now we're parents of three small boys. The first just started kindergarten this year. It never occurred to us that the school bus would become for him the same dark, dangerous, yellow can we remember.
Into the third week of school, our No. 1 son suddenly became an insomniac, prone to night terrors. He balked at getting on the bus. Finally, he fessed up that three boys were hitting him and taunting him on the ride home.
It's hard to be a pacifist when your child is being bullied - somehow all good intentions take wing. I wanted to be Ninja mom until I remembered how Dumbo's mother had handled things and gotten locked up.
"What did you do when this happened?" I asked my son.
Shrugging and sniffling he said, "I tried to ignore them like you always say. That didn't work. So I told them they were making me feel bad. That didn't work either."
As I listened to my son spouting all the politically correct dogma I've filled his head with, I began to realize that I'd made an error. While I'd done the right thing in teaching him tolerance, I didn't give him the tools for handling those who weren't playing by the same rules. I hadn't taught him to ask for help. I'd raised a punching bag.
I told him we would find a way to fix it, and he could talk to his Papa in the morning as well.
Papa hit the roof like a fireball: "The next time those three boys start hurting you, I want you to just start swinging. All you have to do is hit one of them, and no kid will ever bother you again."
My son said, "Mom, I know that would work for Papa because he's so big, but there are three of them."
I called the teacher and the principal for advice. I told them frankly that we were considering allowing our son to rumble his way to freedom.
"Oh, no," the principal sighed. "Not another trip on the bus. This'll be my 12th in two weeks. There's something about the bus that brings out the worst in some students."
He assured me he'd have a subtle chat with the bullies and then make his presence known on the ride for good measure. He said it would work. He counseled me against allowing our son to strike back.
"Schools are very aware of bullying situations since the violence at schools began. Problem children are on our radar early, and we work with them to help them learn tolerance. We want the violence in our schools to stop, and bullying is taken much more seriously now than ever before," he said.
I agreed to his methods, but the knot in my stomach tightened. Anyone who's ever been bullied knows that adult interventions can make the situation much worse for the punching bag.
At any rate, I found that talks with teachers have improved a lot since my days on the bus.
I'm glad I trusted the school to handle the problem. I've come to the realization my sons will suffer abuse that I can't be there to stop. I must be patient and help them find it within themselves to handle this without hiding or hurting. That means being self-confident, not violent. Now we all know that they are not alone in this kind of fight.
* Lisa Suhay, a freelance writer, is author of 'Tell Me a Story' (Paraclete Press).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society