February 9, 2015
Nice kids are mean. It’s true. I’ve seen it year after year, even with 8-year-olds. They are not mean all the time, of course, which is why they think it is OK to be mean. Or perhaps they do not realize how mean their actions really are. But the bottom line is that nice kids say and do things that make other kids feel bad – way too often. I have been perplexed by this phenomenon since I began my elementary teaching career more than 13 years ago. I have always had such nice, bright students. In fact, I have yet to have a kid in my class that I would consider mean, especially not all the time. So, why do my nice, bright third-graders treat each other so poorly sometimes? I address this question in the children’s picture book “Diary of a Real Bully.”
The lessons in this book are inspired by a decade of classroom experience. Most of the bullying I faced as a student occurred in middle school, so I was shocked to see it happen with my third-graders. The most surprising part, however, was when I realized which students were doing the bullying. Some of my sweetest, smartest and most seemingly innocent kids are often the ones who do the most harm. I see the same trends and patterns with every class. One thing these kids all have in common is that they do not see themselves as bullies. When kids think of bullying, they imagine the exaggerated characters they see on TV and in movies. But the bully stereotypes of the big, dumb, mean guy or the self-absorbed, airheaded, mean girl do not exist in real life. No one is a bully all the time, but this misconception makes it hard to understand what real bullying looks like. Because kids do not identify themselves with their perception of bullies, they refuse to accept their actions as bully behavior.
It is important for children to understand that TV-type bullies rarely exist, and in reality, we all act like bullies sometimes. The more we recognize and name these behaviors as bullying, the less likely we are to repeat them. Instead of labeling kids as bullies, we need to identify their actions as bullying. With this slight change in language, children are more willing to accept their behavior and take responsibility for it. They begin to realize when their words are hurtful. They become more mindful of the things they say and how they say them. They are more prepared to apologize and change because they understand that their actions do not determine their identity. Kids do not want to be bullies; they are usually just blind to the negative impact their behaviors have on others. It is our job as adults to help them see it. Bullying is when you make someone feel bad, no matter how small or insignificant it seems.
Breaking the bully stereotype is just the beginning. The next step is empowering kids with the skills they need to communicate effectively. Kids need to say stop when someone is bothering them. They need to share how they feel and why they do not like the behavior. They need to ask for an apology. While it seems simple, I have watched students struggle with these steps every year until they have been taught, modeled, practiced and applied to their real-life problems. Communication is the most powerful tool in every situation.
Melody Arabo has been a third grade teacher at Keith Elementary in the Walled Lake Consolidated School District since 2002. She has a Bachelor's Degree in Elementary Education and a Master's Degree in Teaching and Curriculum, both from Michigan State University. She has been married for more than 12 years and has three children - an 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old twin boys. In 2008, she was named Keith Elementary Teacher of the Year and was first runner-up for Walled Lake's District Teacher of the Year in 2009. She was named Michigan Teacher of the Year on May 15, 2014, by the state.