Category Archives: Bullying

Words, Cyber-Bullies, Cyber-Robin Hood & Us

“Have you been playing with her?” I asked my four-year-old one night as she was settled in for bed. One of her favorite friends had been away for 6 weeks over the holidays and though she’d since been back a few weeks, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t heard her name come up as we talked about her days at school. So I asked if they’d been playing.

Turns out, if you ask a preschooler the right questions, sometimes you just might get a detailed answer. Even if you don’t like the answer you will get.

“No. I haven’t been playing with her,” she responded.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because I don’t play with people with brown skin.”

I just about choked on my own saliva as I processed this statement. Quickly I assured myself that this child is barely four-years-old and by no means is she a card-carrying member of the KKK but this was still deeply troublesome to me.

I prodded her on who told her this and why she was saying it and learned she’d heard it from another child in her class.

Obviously we have a long road in front of us, we being me and Mr. Wired Momma, in terms of the kinds of whacky and hurtful things our children are bound to say to each other and about others – not to mention things that are going to be said to them – and if I’m struggling with this with a four-year-old – then one wonders how equipped I am for the murky and fraught teen years.

In the instance of my daughter, she was isolating one girl at school based on her skin color because some other kid at school told her to do it. Why would she listen to this other kid, I worried. In our extremely liberal community, I never once believed this particular child was hearing these statements at home but I really couldn’t get past why she would listen to this kid.


The reality is, it wasn’t that she listened to this kid that mattered as much as this:  teaching her that we actually DO play with people with different skin colors and that our words hurt others. Of course, I thought I’d already been doing that but apparently not enough.

The bottom line is – whether we are talking about preschoolers or teenagers – bullying and hateful comments are not just about the kids – they are about the parents. We know that bullying, mean girls and cyber-bullying is a problem that isn’t going away. The question is – do we put enough onus on ourselves as parents when we discuss these issues? Are we involved enough? Do we ask enough questions?

We hover hover hover over our kids as babies. We help them up the slides, we help them down the slides. We make their own food from scratch. We worry about how long we nurse them for. We fret over when they are old enough to walk home alone from the bus stop. We eliminate all BPA. We buy organic. We fret and worry.

Meanwhile, do we far too easily hand them a cell phone, an iPad, or access to the internet? Do we allow them to get on Twitter, to establish Facebook accounts or Instagram accounts far too young? Do we, ourselves, as parents, understand the pitfalls, dangers and repercussions of this carte blanche to the vast world of the Internet? Are we equipped to teach them of the great responsibility in the freedom of the internet? Do we appreciate the dangers in our kids having Instagram accounts and posting pictures, in real-time, for anyone to see not just who they are but where they are? Do we “friend” them on Facebook? Are we aware of what they are posting on Twitter? Have we set the parental controls on Google so they can’t stumble upon anything in a search?

Are we prepared to invest the amount of time it takes to monitor and guide other them to help make sure they are responsible cyber-citizens?

Do we hyper-parent when they are extremely young and then slack off too much when they get a little older? What is the right line between encouraging independence, setting them free, and also remembering they are still teens without the best judgement all the time – and with tremendous access to say and explore and be seen – thanks to technology?

I’m not sure if you’ve seen it but Emily Bazelon has a fascinating piece in The Atlantic about cyber-bullying. Near the end of her long and provocative piece, she notes this:  “I find myself agreeing with Ash that “someone needs to teach these kids to be mindful, and anyone doing that is a good thing.”

I wonder how much this particular point, the role of the parents, gets blurred because we are so distracted with the fact that kids are destroying each other in social media. And for some recent examples of just how brutally teens are destroying each other in social media, be sure to read Bazelon’s piece in the Atlantic. It is bound to leave you feeling uneasy.

What intrigued me about her piece, beyond her insight that middle and high school age kids would rather be suspended from school than kicked off Facebook, was Bazelon’s interview with MIT professor, Henry Lieberman. Professor Lieberman discovered that bullies, shockingly, aren’t that “creative” in their techniques and their bullying tends to fall overwhelmingly into six categories: appearance, intelligence, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or social acceptance and rejections. He then created an algorithm that can detect tone and combinations of words to determine bullying or mean language. The program he built will then prompt you before you post something potentially hurtful and note that it seems mean and ask if that’s what you meant to say, or ask if you’d like to wait 60 minutes before posting this.

Honestly, I could benefit from this program on some days. And lord knows some of the adults who so easily hurl insults at one another on the neigborhood listservs I am on could certainly benefit from a prompt asking them if they really want to be that mean or maybe want to sit on that message for a bit before pressing send. So this must be a brilliant idea for teens, right?


Well, in my head, if one of my girls were about to be really mean online and a program prompted them to ask if they really wanted to do that, it would stop them dead in their tracks.

Then again, in my head, my four-year old doesn’t make racist statements either, so perhaps reality is a little different?

Here’s a quick link to a 2-minute video about Professor Lieberman’s computer program – it’s super interesting.

So where does that leave us? It leaves me thinking about the group Anonymous that Bazelon describes in her article because a few members of the group, which is primarily a group of hackers, took on some cyber-bullies in Twitter and brought it to the attention of the local school district and police. If a group of online hackers is doing this – to take down bullies – then again, where are the parents?

Busy hovering over their toddler on the playground?

Look – I don’t have any answers and I don’t have a teen yet – so I’m aware of how easy it is to over-simplify and point fingers when you aren’t there yet – but are we being honest with ourselves as parents? Are we engaging enough in the murky areas of social media if we’re giving our kids the keys and the access?

Here are some great tips for parents from The Bullying Project. You can learn more about The Bully Effect and the movie here

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Girls & Boys on bullying, free-range vs. helicopter parenting & gender roles

Last week, I was fortunate to be invited to the Highlights Magazine press conference announcing the results of their annual State of the Kid Survey. As a kid, my grandfather always sent us subscriptions to Highlights Magazines and we loved them, especially those hidden pictures. Now, my Aunt purchases the magazine subscription for my girls every year, and the tradition continues, we still love looking through them – especially those hidden pictures. So when Highlights emails, I’m likely to respond, and then add in the chance to hear what they learned by polling kids ages 5 and up on issues like bullying, what their parents worry about, and what girls and boys are good at – bam – I am there and all ears.

So first topic: bullying. According to the survey results, 61% of children up to age 12 feel they have been bullied. Highlights dug a little deeper, however, and learned the younger kids define bullying pretty broadly as “being mean.”  The older kids, ages 9 through 12, were more likely to define bullying also as unprovoked – in some of the kid’s own words to “hurt or embarrass for no reason.”  Not surprisingly, children who had been bullied were also more likely to admit to bullying someone else.  Interestingly, when asked how they handle being bullied, 14% said they tried to handle it themself instead of telling a parent or teacher, and boys were more likely to say they tried to bully that person back while girls tried to ignore them.  One of the experts at the press conference, Deborah Holliday, a social worker from New Jersey and spokesperson for, noted that the kids are much more likely to tell a teacher than their parent about the bullying behavior – and noted this is troubling because parents need to be actively involved in combating a bullying culture. As a parent of a child who just started Kindergarten, I obviously couldn’t agree with her more, but so far my struggle is getting my daughter to tell me anything about her day when she gets home from school. It’s like I need CIA training in interrogation to get any details. Typically she ” can’t remember,” so I’d be interested in more ideas on how parents can be involved when we are relying upon our tight lipped and exhausted kids to tell us.

Next children were asked what they think their parents worry about. An overwhelming 77% said their parents worry about them, which at least in my house, is certainly the case. Another common response was that their parents worry about money. In this age of the debate between helicopter parenting and free range kids, so many of them wrote about their parents worrying about their safety, them getting kidnapped and murdered and many of their written responses hinted at frustration that their parents aren’t giving them more freedom. In the press packet which included written statements by the kids themselves, one child wrote “They worry about me so much that I get worried about my freedom!”  Aside from that being hilarious, it strikes a chord with me between allowing your child to play freely outside in contrast with  posts on neighborhood listservs about cars driving slowly behind kids walking home from school and general paranoia from watching the news or one of these cop shows on TV. It also serves as a good reminder to me that these kids really are always listening and they are absorbing our worries and anxieties and to what end – does it help them realize the world isn’t a safety net for them or should we be more careful that there are listening ears around us at all times?  Striking the balance between trusting them and giving them independence but keeping them safe must surely be a constant struggle.

And last but not least – the real reason I was eager to hear the results – gender roles.

If you find this acceptable, please stop reading my blog

 Spoiler alert – as a mother of two girls – these results weigh very heavily on my heart. The Highlights press release summed it up with this statement: “The 30 questions Highlights asked kids over the last three years have included some surprising differences between boys and girls. In total, they suggested that girls are highly aware of their physical appearance and that affects their current and future vision of themselves and their opportunities.” Recall – we are talking about kids ages 5-12 here. In 2009, survey respondents said that girls are more likely to be asked to do chores than boys. In 2010, boys were more likely to say the best thing about them was their smarts. This year, there was a strong consensus that boys are better at sports than girls and sadly there was no real consensus on what girls are good at doing, the most common answers included hair/makeup (12%), cheerleading/gymnastics (10%), school (8%), cooking and cleaning (5%) and listening (3%).

I am speechless and disappointed and wish I wasn’t surprised. I’m also left wondering what I need to do as a parent to make sure my daughters answer with things like their athletic prowess and their intelligence. And I wonder if it’s about confidence – are we better at raising confident boys than confident girls? Is it a cultural problem as much as an issue of what we teach them at home and at school? Do we talk to girls dramatically differently than boys?

Again, if you bought this for your daughter, don't read my blog

Why is this happening? Surely cultural expectations are a problem if retailers like Forever 21 believe they can turn a profit off selling t shirts to girls with “Allergic to Algebra” as the slogan. Last week Anna Holmes had a wonderful column in the Washington Post about the grave need for girls to pursue careers in science and technology.  She wrote: “According to a report released last month by the Department of Commerce, although females fill almost half of the jobs in the American economy, less than 25 percent of jobs in STEM fields are held by women. Even worse, female representation in the computer science and math sector — the largest of the four STEM components — has declined over the years, from 30 percent in 2000 to 27 in 2009.” (STEM being science, technology, engineering and math).  Holmes goes on to make the case that the reason women aren’t pursuing careers in these fields begins at a very young age and she quotes an expert:

“We are back to the beauty versus brains saga, in which girls entering middle school feel forced to ask themselves, ‘Do I want to be smart in math, or do I want to be seen as attractive?’ ” says Jennifer Skaggs, a University of Kentucky education researcher and author of the June 2011 paper Making the Blind to See: Balancing STEM Identity With Gender Identity. “If a female is seen as technically competent, she is assumed to be socially incompetent. And it works the other way around.”

So what’s the answer? Talk more with our girls about math and science, work harder at encouraging them to pursue these fields? Spend more time talking with them about the importance of being smart and confident than how cute they look and what outfit they are wearing? What do you think?