More Kindness and Less Labels! Shifting the Narrative Around Bullying

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If you have school-aged children you have probably heard everything there is to know about bullying and prevention, especially during the month of October. The campaign was funded in 2006 and ever since then, schools dedicate an entire month to increase awareness and prevention. When I first encountered the campaign I was glad that we had a space for a conversation and action, but as it usually happens with parenting, our experiences can shift our perceptions. 

I recently attended a training on restorative justice. As preparation for the training, I had to read The Little Book on Circle Processes. The book refers to circle processes as a way “to nurture and promote a good connection with others.” (Pranis, K., 2005, p. 25). The circles promote healing, understanding of harm and ultimately lead to the transformation of behavior and ownership of one’s actions. Circles are used for assisting victims of crime but are also very helpful in handling school discipline. The circles provide a voice to victims, the community and the offender, allowing for conversation and healing.

The book reminded me of an incident we had at school earlier this year. My oldest son had acted in what sounded to me like bullying behavior. Unfortunately, it was not an isolated incident and his actions were mostly towards the same child. I had been bullied from 5th to 7th grade and the thought of my baby boy becoming a bully was completely terrifying. Therefore I sounded all the alarms and took quick action to immediately correct my son’s behavior.

Demand action or wait?

After an email to his teacher, administration and the student counselor, I received a series of similar responses. Their action plan was to start an investigation and with this make the appropriate redirections. I was asked to be patient, observe and wait. It took an emotional toll on me, but I knew I had to trust their processes. 

In the following days, I asked my son about the incident. What happened in the class after that day and how he felt about it. What he described to me was a textbook definition of a restorative circle, something that I later got to appreciate as I dug deeper into the subject. 

Punishment

Why should we change our approach?

Approaching bullying and classroom discipline with “circle like” processes is extremely transformative. Our teacher later explained her method: the entire class sat around the circle, acknowledged their emotions and reflected on how they thought their actions affected others. The circle not only included both parties, but the class as a whole and both teachers. Involving everyone in the community is a crucial element in the understanding of one’s actions and the effect it has on a group. It also gives individuals a sense of belonging and ownership, making future incidents less likely. 

As I was sitting in my training all I could think of is how lucky I was for having such an amazing team helping me raise my children. 

We live in a society where, unfortunately, fear tends to drive our actions. A constant pursuit of what we believe is safety and understand as justice. Punishment and consequences are part of our social contract. Unfortunately, justice tends to come with a top-down approach, leaving little space to healing and transformative actions. I am thankful that our school focuses more on the idea of kindness rather than labeling everything as bullying and troubled children. It is hard to shift the conversation, even at home, but I think it is necessary in order to create consciousness of emotions and an understanding of the impact of our actions. 

The change is up to us.

If we think of the traditional approach to discipline and schools, we land on the conversation about suspensions. Data shows that there is a racial disparity in the way discipline is handled. This is not only on who gets punishment but how parents react and what actions they demand from schools. The uncomfortable topic of race surfaces and unfortunately this creates friction within our community.

Different groups have different approaches to conflict and misbehavior, but in the end, what matters is that a child understands their actions and corrects them. In general, and I don’t say that because of my recent experience with my child, harsh punishment usually leads to shame and a feeling of inequality. It rarely leads to a behavior change and let alone an acknowledgment of the harm and healing of the victim. Demanding harsh actions towards children because of what our beliefs have taught us was the right approach, is not always the best answer. I cannot say whether my son will behave this way in the future. However, if we continue with this approach I am certain he will be more aware of his emotions and the effects of his actions on others. 

As we look forward, we should go back to the teachings from our ancestors. Repair what is broken and use that to build help our children create better connections. At the end of the day, we live as a community and not isolated individuals. Kindness is built on communication and an understanding of emotions. Let’s shift our conversation on bullying and discipline to create a more conscious next generation.

“We’re all lovers and we’re all destroyers. We’re all frightened and at the same time we all want to terribly trust. This is part of our struggle. We have to help what is the most beautiful to emerge in us and divert the powers of darkness and violence. I learn to be able to say, ‘This is my fragility. I must learn about it and use it in a constructive way.'” 

Jean Vanier

Pranis, K. (2005). The little book of circle processes : A new/old approach to peacemaking. Intercourse, PA: Good Books. 
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Tatiana was born in Bogota, Colombia and moved to the United States at age 15. She moved from Houston to DC in 2007 to work for an international organization. She met her husband at work and married in 2011. She has two children: Santiago (2013) and Antonio (2015) and a Masters degree in Conflict Resoliution. After the birth of her second child, she decided to take time off to stay home and focus on the kids. She is passionate about nutrition, self-led weaning and homemade food. The Story of My Table is her Instagram account and blog where she shares her adventures in the kitchen. She strongly believes that a wine a day keeps the doctor away and that the key to parenting two boys is to keep in good shape. She is not a fan of baking, but would occasionally do it to avoid highly processed food. She is an advocate for natural foods, Montessori education and allowing children to get bored. One day she dreams of building an organization where she can combine her passion for food with peacebuilding.