Raise your hand if you can relate to any of the following. A high school student saving for a car, or saving for college. A college student. A single parent trying to make ends meet. A parent trying to pay for a kid’s braces or college tuition. A retiree trying to live on only a retirement check. Go on, raise your hand if you’ve ever had a reason to work a job that paid the minimum wage. Can you relate? Good, because that ability to relate is the foundation of this post.
Last summer when the blackberries were thick here in the Pacific Northwest, the seasonal milkshake and lemonade at Burgerville reflected those luscious beauties. I was standing among the milieu of hungry folks and the man behind me orders a blackberry shake.
He’s a big bear of a man, all barrel-chested and weathered by time and sun and life. Maybe he was a choker-setter back in his youth. Maybe he was an attorney or doctor. There’s no way of knowing. All I know is this big grey-haired man in his faded Dockers shorts and a tee-shirt stretched tight over his belly has come to stand beside me. There must have been about fifteen of us waiting there in the heat of summer, the smell of fresh French fries thick in the air.
The woman behind the beverage counter leans forward and calls out, “Large blackberry lemonade?” And none of us step forward. Frowning, she looks down at the print-out and then shouts out a number just one off from my own.
“That’s supposed to be a shake. A blackberry shake.”
His voice matches him, big and commanding. She recoils a bit and says, “Sorry sir. I’ll have that right up.”
And then he turns to me and addresses me and everyone else, including the girl, “What can you expect from minimum wage?”
To which I may have very quietly said to myself, “What can you expect from an asshole?”
What I should have said is “What can you expect from a bully?” Because judging that girl’s value as a human due to someone else’s action is no different than the school-yard bully picking on kids because of size, ability, interests, et cetera. It’s all judgement and a lack of tolerance for others.
At some point in his life, this man learned to equate the job a person does with the value of that person. That only minimum wage workers make mistakes. And that people who earn an hourly wage are somehow incapable of anything better. Someone taught him that judging others is okay and that throwing verbal stones as an adult is just as acceptable as throwing physical stones as a kid.
We must break this cycle of childhood bullying turning into intolerance for others. And we can do it by teaching the young to empathize. We can ask hard questions like, “how would you feel if that was done to you?” We can teach our children to be better people than ourselves — to be more tolerant. It is not a difficult thing, but it is a hard thing.
No place illustrates a child’s potential like a preschool. There are leaders and followers, fearless and fearful, outgoing and shy. And there are the bullies and the bullied. And just like I see parents ignore kids jumping off tall play equipment, I also see parents ignore bullying behavior. Sometimes the parent is distracted and sometimes the parent just shrugs and says, “kids will be kids!”
But we must teach kids that they should be better than that. That every person they meet is just as wonderful of a gift as he/she is. And we must teach this today and everyday. In everything we do. Teach every child through our words and deeds to be the best he/or she can be. Even if that child is a big bear of a man standing in line at Burgerville.
I failed that day. I didn’t speak up for that young woman spending her summer working at a minimum wage job, whom I’d once overheard say is working her way through the local college to be a pediatric nurse. Perhaps it was the safe thing, to not engage a stranger in a confrontation. But was it the right thing? The thing that will ultimately make humanity better?
The news lately has been filled with ways that humanity is NOT better. Young people are taking their lives more today than in recent years because they have been bullied and feel they just can’t go on. This happens every day in this country and abroad. Some folks brush off the deaths because the kids were gay, or black, or poor, or whatever. Don’t. Every person has been picked on about something: too tall, too short, too fat, too skinny, too smart, too dumb, too this color, too that color, too whatever. No one escapes bullying without some level of scarring — both the bully and the bullied.
Show a child that kids will be kids, but that doesn’t mean the kids will be judgmental and hurtful. If each and every one of us were to do this, kids being kids will be the solution to so many problems instead of the reason so many kids die.
One of my favorite sites for curriculum to teach all ages of people to be tolerant is the Teaching Tolerance site from the Southern Poverty Center.
Another site with great ideas for parents is Ryan Patrick Halligan which includes ways of preventing or limiting your child’s cyberbullying exposure.
If you have sources you believe are helpful, please add them in the comments. Together, we can help kids know that it will get better, that we will protect them, that bullying is wrong and the answer is not suicide. The answer is adults teaching children to be better people.
If you are a young person and are being bullied, please tell a grown-up. Parents, teachers, ministers, nurses, doctors, anyone you feel comfortable talking to about other things, talk to them about being bullied. If they don’t help you, tell someone else. Keep telling until you are safe.