Name-calling may not cause the same kind of hurt as sticks and stones – but the common taunts of “freak,” “retard,” or “sissy” can cut deep. Even before bullying hit the headlines because of student suicides in Massachusetts, elementary-school children here in quaint Cape Cod had taken their stand against teasing all the way to the state capitol.
“No Name Calling Day” – a time for activities to help replace verbal bullying with respect – has been so successful at the Quashnet School in Mashpee that student organizers asked legislators to recognize the day statewide. It’s now part of the antibullying law that is soon expected to be finalized.
“You only want to be called one name: your name,” says sixth-grader Rachel Bridges.
Over the course of not just a day but a whole week this January, she and others in the Kiwanis-sponsored K-Kids club promoted anticyberbullying lessons; wrote and performed a play about being teased on the kickball field; and held a mix-it-up lunch, where kids sat with random peers and high school student discussion leaders.
Since then, they’ve seen a big difference in the way classmates treat one another. Reputed bullies “really came along, because they’re now noticing what they’re saying, and then saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry,’ ” Rachel says.
Fourth-grader Grace Shinn, whose pink T-shirt bears a giant peace symbol, adds that “people really thought, ‘Is that really what I want to do – make people’s feelings hurt?’ ”
Some children don’t realize just how much damage words can do until it’s too late. Judy Freedman, a veteran school social worker in Illinois, will never forget how, in the wake of a bullied student’s suicide, some classmates wrote on his coffin, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
Some teasing is innocent and meant to be fun – laughing with someone instead of at them. But when it’s cruel – whether intentionally or not – children need strategies to respond, and adults need to send clear signals, says Ms. Freedman, the Chicago-based author of “Easing the Teasing: Helping Your Child Cope with Name-Calling, Ridicule, and Verbal Bullying.”
Society sends mixed messages. “American Idol” judges banter disrespectfully. The mother of one of the teens accused of bullying Phoebe Prince, a South Hadley, Mass., sophomore who later committed suicide, said in a local news report that her daughter didn’t physically assault Phoebe, but that the two had exchanged words. “They’re teenagers. They call names,” she said.
“So many people say ... ‘kids will be kids,’... but we have to take a strong stand that teasing is wrong.... Teasing can escalate into bullying,” Freedman says.
When students learn to defuse teasing, they’re less likely to become victims of bullies, who often shop around for the biggest emotional reaction, Freedman explains.
For instance, instead of feeling bad about themselves if they’re teased for being short, she helps children learn that there’s nothing wrong with being shorter than others, and that they can embrace their appearance.
“Sometimes by just acknowledging it, it defuses the tease,” she says.
And they can speak up when they witness hurtful comments. In one school where Freedman worked, some fifth-grade girls told her a new boy was being teased by a group of popular boys. She had lunch with more than 20 concerned bystanders and helped them pluck up the courage to step in and tell the boys to stop when they witnessed the verbal bullying. She also talked with the boys and their parents. The situation improved dramatically.
The Quashnet club timed its activities in January to correspond with national No Name-Calling Week, promoted since 2004 by a range of educational groups and inspired by the novel “The Misfits,” by James Howe. Educators report that “name-calling and bullying do decrease once this conversation is started,” says Daryl Presgraves, spokesman for the No Name-Calling Week Coalition and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), in New York.
Reminders still line the halls at the Quashnet School: Colorful student drawings declare “No place for hate” or “Don’t diss – it’s mean.”
The focus is on positive language, not simply what students shouldn’t say, notes K-Kids adviser Jane Emery. In the gym, a giant banner bears the motto the club came up with to encourage people to think before they speak: “Is it kind? Is it true? Is it helpful?”