Bullying & Belonging

It starts with committing to creating a caring and nurturing environment

by Tamara Fyke

My son was about eight years old, and he was in second grade. I found him one day upstairs in his room crying.

“What’s going on, sweetie?” I asked with great concern.

“I’m stupid. The other kids are reading chapter books, and I can’t. They make fun of me,” he confessed.

I promised him that we would get help, figure out what was going on. I held him and reassured him of my love as he wept. I whispered the truth to him that he was the most special little boy in the world to me.

From that moment, we began the investigation with reading specialists and tutors. He even got glasses. We were on our way to a better school experience.

But the teasing didn’t stop. Now my son was laughed at because he wore glasses. The kid just couldn’t get a break!

We had another tearful conversation, and I encouraged my boy to stand up for himself. “Tell them to stop. And if they don’t, ask a teacher for help.”

My son’s story isn’t unique or particularly severe, but it affected his heart and his view of school. To this day he tells me that his favorite experience was preschool because he got to ride the bikes in the gym. That makes sense because he’s a boy and an athlete. However, I wonder if the fondness of that memory is also because he was in a nurturing environment.

According to, “Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior — verbal, social or physical — among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”

The current popularity of the Netflix hit show 13 Reasons Why is evidence that this is a story that resonates with kids. Additionally, a recent social media post about bullying on our Love In A Big World FaceBook page prompted the greatest response we’ve ever seen. That tells me that people are looking for answers.

First, bullying is not relegated to childhood. As an adult, I have experienced bullying in relationships and in the workplace. Often, schools that have the biggest problems with bullying are the ones where teachers don’t get along. We owe it to ourselves and our kids to get our act together. The gossip, backbiting, and meanness must stop. Instead, let’s get to know each other and cultivate healthy relationships both in and out of the workplace.

Second, as in my son’s case, bullying often hurts us most when it targets areas in which we feel weak. Therefore, it behooves us to increase our own self-awareness and do the personal work we need to do to better love ourselves. We needed to find out the root of my son’s problem so we could get him the support he needed. Whether the challenge is intellectual, mental, social or physical, there are resources available to assist us on our journey to wholeness. There is no shame in asking for help.

And last, we all know bullying is a problem; this is nothing new. Years ago, bullying was often regarded as a right of passage experience. When the underdog stood up to the bully, he or she  became the hero. What I think is different now is that the stakes are higher. This is no longer about a bloody nose on a playground; this is about life and death, in some cases homicide or suicide. Therefore, we must take action.

From a positive youth development approach, it is about decreasing risk factors and increasing protective factors. This does not mean putting up posters that say “No Bullying Zone.” It means rolling up our sleeves and doing the hard work of having the critical conversations with adults and kids that need to be had because relationships matter… people count!

We must choose Kindness — treating others the way we want to be treated. Yes, what I’m advocating for takes time… it’s neither glamorous nor complicated. We must be committed to creating a caring and nurturing environment, starting with a smile, a positive attitude and kind words. We need to build each other up, not tear each other down.

The simple truth is we all want to be seen and safe; we have a need to belong. So, let’s challenge ourselves to experience life with our whole heart engaged — and teach our kids to do the same.

13 Reasons Why

Update from last week: I watched the final episode of 13 Reasons Why two nights ago. During my binge watching of the show, comments from my daughter included “Tell me where you are in the show, Mom”, “Can you believe what happened to (insert name of character highlighted in that episode)?”, “I’m not watching that show anymore because I know everything since my friends at school told me about it”, and “I’m never telling you about anything I watch again because I don’t want you to watch it, Mom!” All of the remarks above led into deeper conversations about the topics covered in the show — bullying, suicide, friendship, drugs, alcohol, high school life, rape, etc..

One particular day when she was lamenting the fact that mom was watching this teen drama, I asked her, “Do you know why I’m taking time to watch this show?”

“No,” responded my soon-to-be ninth grader.

“Because it’s tough stuff. And I don’t want you to have to navigate it out on your own,” I stated matter-of-factly. My daughter didn’t say anything then. But when I let her know the other day that I was about to watch episode thirteen she told me how upset I was going to be … and last night she told me about a girl at school who gets picked on by everyone else. “I’m nice to her though, Mama. And I tell other people to leave her alone. She’s my friend, I guess.”

That’s why I watched the show. For her. I want to be a safe place for my girl to process what is going on in her world — always.

One question I asked myself time and again as the story of Hannah Baker and her classmates unfolded on the screen was “Where are the parents?” The young characters on the show were left to wrestle through traumatic events mostly without any adult guidance.

Articles last week from the New York Times, Business Insiderand smaller presses stress the controversy over 13 Reasons Why. Some mental health experts, educators and parents say that it glamorizes suicide. All urge parents to watch the show with their kids, especially kids who may be struggling with depression.

Regardless of our opinions about the show, it is a phenomenon, with over 3.5 million social impressions in the first week. It can be a tool to turn the hearts of parents and children toward one another. So what are we going to do about it?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Make time to listen to your kids. I know it can be hard to find the time with all we juggle as parents, but our kids are our priority! Even take time to play!
  • Take any comments about bullying at school seriously. Empower your kids to stand up for themselves and their peers. Talk with school personnel about school climate and safety plans.
  • Educate yourself about the signs of depression. Remember depression is anger turned inward. Talk with your kids about healthy ways to deal with their anger, such as talking with you, deep breathing, journaling, exercising, painting, etc. Assure your kids that it is okay to feel what they feel.
  • Find a counselor or other mental health professional. There is no shame in needing help for your kids or for yourself.
  • If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

Let’s Play

Last Saturday I took my youngest son and his friend to Laser Quest. It’s the best laser tag place I know, full of two-story mazes covered in glow-in-the-dark paint. I had intended to sit and wait for the boys as they enjoyed their experience, but a quick phone call with Mom changed that plan. “Go play. Have fun! I would if I was there,” encouraged Mom. She knows I’m still a kid at heart, just like her. With her voice ringing in my ears, I played two of the greatest games of laser tag in my life! And, of course, my son enjoyed having me play right along with him.

I’ve been musing on that adventure throughout the week, wondering about the importance of play and celebration.

In an age where standardized test scores often overshadow whole child development, schools are either shortening or eliminating recess. At home, overachieving parents are shuttling kids from one activity to another without providing much downtime. Or if there is time at home, each family member is isolated by staring at a screen. Are we adults afraid of letting kids be bored, even when boredom can breed innovation?

Public Television’s beloved Fred Rogers of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” Are we providing time and space for this type of serious learning?

A constructivist approach lends itself to play. Play is a beautiful way to connect with others and practice social and emotional skills, behaviors, and competencies. Play provides a safe space — a microcosm of society — in which children learn to cooperate and compromise with one another. It’s also a whole lot of fun!

Not only is play important for kids, but it is also vital for adults. Miguel Sicart says, “Play is the expressive, creative, appropriative, and personal activity through which we make sense of the world.” Play is more than an activity; it is a mindset. L.P. Jacks notes, “The master in the art of living makes little distinction between work and play, labor and leisure, mind and body, information and recreation, and love and religion. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he’s always doing both.” Through play we cultivate curiosity and creativity. It fosters a sense of belonging and brings us joy, which gives us strength. I believe play is essential to living life to the fullest.

Years ago I remember a child development expert telling me to take twenty minutes a day to play with my kids. Think of it…no phone, no chores, no work…just time to play and be thankful. Whether you have kids in your life or not, I challenge you to take twenty minutes a day to play and celebrate. Let’s make a game of it!