Category Archives: Technology

The Growing Culture of Exclusion

You’re a good person: you work hard, spend quality time with your kids, keep your home up and even go to church and pray regularly. Maybe you volunteer at a local charity or donate scads of money to every cause that asks. You and your kids are popular, always surrounded by friends, neighbors and family. Life is good.

Then one day, you get a call. It’s your little angel’s school counselor. “We need to talk. Your child has been bullying.”

Congratulations! Despite your perfect life, you think, you’re a bad parent. Where did things go so wrong?

Have you ever mumbled to yourself, “Oh my goodness, I can’t stand that kid” when the odd kid in the neighborhood comes around? Have you ever rolled your eyes when your sweet little angel told you about how the “special” kid in class did something totally strange? Have you ever nodded in knowing agreement when your child told you how he didn’t like the loud kid in class, silently thinking “neither do I”?

Maybe it wasn’t even something quite so obvious. Maybe you’ve held a few backyard parties and failed to invite the single mom even though she lives right across the street, just because her kid is a little too emotional.  Maybe you’ve advised your son to just stay away from another child with whom he’s had a conflict, or stroked your daughter’s head and said “it’s okay” when she wailed about how much she hates the tall, pretty girl in class.

Subliminally, you were slowly inducting your child into a culture of exclusion, and probably never even knew it.  No matter how many times you tell your child “bullying is bad” and “don’t be mean to others,” your baby is going to learn more from what you do than what you say. If you’re excluding others from your circle, no matter what your reasons for doing so, you are raising your child to be a bully. Why? Because you are teaching him it’s okay to leave others out if being around that person makes him uncomfortable or is getting in the way of what he’s trying to achieve. And guess what: intentional exclusion IS bullying.

The biggest problem with exclusion is that kids are never subtle about it. When they’ve decided to leave someone out, they tend to make it very obvious to the kid at the other end that she’s not welcome. This is especially true of teens and pre-teens, who tend to bind exclusion with gossiping and tormenting the peer they’re trying to avoid.

As parents, we want to believe the best about our kids. After that call, you’ll probably have a chat with your little angel. “Honey, your counselor says you’ve been bullying Janie at school. Is that true?”

“No, Janie is my friend. I just got tired of playing with her. I wanted to play with my other friends.”

Probably sounds reasonable enough to believe. However, if you don’t want your child to end up at the wrong end of a weapon when her bullying goes awry, you’ll read between the lines. Your angel is tired of Janie. She wanted to play with her other friends. But not Janie. So how did she handle that? Did she run away when Janie tried to join the game? Did she tell her to go away? Did she enlist other kids to keep Janie from joining in as well?

Chances are your little angel may have been bullying Janie and thought she was doing nothing wrong, because, let’s face it, she’s seen you do the same thing. Remember that barbecue you held for everyone but the reclusive old man at the end of the street? Maybe not, but I guarantee your child does. The lesson she learned was that it’s okay to exclude others if you have a good enough reason. Maybe you left the single mom out because no one else knows her very well. I mean, she’s rarely outside when everyone else is walking dogs and working in their front yards, swapping recipes and stories between pulling weeds. And besides, she’d probably be uncomfortable being the only one there without a spouse. Right? (By the way, not true. Trust me, she’s more uncomfortable knowing her neighbors all got together and left her out than hanging out with a bunch of married people, which doesn’t bother her at all.)

Whether you’re a Christian or not, the Bible got it right when giving us the order in Matthew 22:39 to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Anytime we treat others in a way other than how we ourselves would want to be treated, we are failing as parents and as members of our communities.  The reality is, that odd kid or that reclusive neighbor likely needs our love and attention more than the people we call friends.

I should know: After fifteen years, I suddenly found myself single and raising a child on my own. Before that, I had plenty of friends, was active in my church and my community. I thought they would all be there for me, and for a while some were. Realistically though, the air of rejection and judgment that surrounded me was palpable. I began to notice all of my neighbors inviting each other over, but not me and my daughter. My neighbors disliked me over issues that were left in my lap that I could not control. My yard went from the best in the neighborhood to barely acceptable because I couldn’t afford to pay for much more with all the surprise debt I inherited. I worked constantly, desperately trying to keep my head above water after having to find a new, lower paying job that accommodated the added responsibilities of raising a child completely alone. After a couple of frightening incidents, I bought a scary-looking but sweet American Bulldog puppy to keep me and my little girl safe from a very real and present danger. My neighbors clearly weren’t thrilled, made evident by their habit of crossing the street or turning and walking the other way when we came near. My formerly popular child, once the “must” on every birthday party and playdate invitation list, was left spending most weekends alone (with me) because she sometimes broke down and cried at school. Her peers didn’t understand why she was being such a baby but chose to torment her rather than help her through her difficulties.

You see, everyone who knew us “before” assumed the break-up was my fault. I must have done something wrong or there was something wrong with me. My ex was a great guy loved by everyone. Mr. Life of the Party. Of course, no one else knew about the alcohol and drug addiction that lead to an endless cycle of emotional and, occasionally, physical abuse. By the time my ex left, my daughter and I were shell-shocked, alone and afraid. The abuse didn’t end after the relationship – he continued to torture us from afar for several years, but no one wanted to believe it because of the lies he spread about me to hide his addiction. It only ended when he was recently forced into rehabilitation after a second run-in with the law. Sadly, I think he may have even believed the things he made up about me and my daughter, which made his stories that much more believable for those who heard them.

At first, my circle dwindled to my three closest friends. Over the past six months, all but one family has phased us out of their lives. You see, my daughter has ADHD and the emotional stress we’ve been through, along with a couple of episodes of bullying by kids we once knew well and loved, only make her symptoms worse. The continual exclusion she is subjected to by children she once called friends has dimmed the light that once shone in her eyes. So many nights she’s cried herself to sleep in my arms over being treated like she’s invisible.  (It happened again at church today. What happened to me felt just as bad, though I had to hide it from her.) Unfortunately, the parents see nothing wrong with allowing their kids to leave her out because, well, she’s kind of loud and emotional sometimes. I truly doubt they know it’s done so blatantly as to ensure she gets the message that she’s not wanted. But the message has been delivered loud and clear. I got it, too.

You see, even good people can raise bullies. Kids you’ve known since they were in diapers can succumb to the temptation right under the noses of well-meaning parents. Why do good parents let their kids get away with it? Because to them, it’s okay to avoid hanging out with the weird kid if you don’t like to be around them.  It’s okay to leave out the single mom if she doesn’t have a husband to entertain the other men or doesn’t keep her yard as nice as everyone else. It’s okay to avoid the strange family that homeschools their kids because they make everyone feel awkward at parties.  And it’s okay to let your child do what makes him feel good, regardless of whether or not it destroys the spirit of the kid whose only true friend has been ripped away from him in the process of leaving him out just because he doesn’t play football, too.

No matter what we want to believe or who we want to blame, bullying starts at home. We are responsible for teaching our children that bullying is more than just being mean. When we leave out one neighbor, condone avoiding even one child, no matter how obnoxious or strange, we are raising a bully who will be doomed to a life of short-lived, shallow relationships and a continual belief that life revolves around him.

Do your kids a favor: bake a plate of cookies, grab your child and take him to visit the family you forgot to invite over during the last neighborhood gathering. Let your child hear you apologize for leaving them out. Get to know your neighbor. Maybe he or she is like me: not reclusive but overwhelmed and alone, in need of a friend. You might find you’ve accidentally excluded someone truly worth your time. And who knows? That weird kid could turn out to be the next Bill Gates or Angelina Jolie. (Both once victims of bullies, too.)  You never know who that person you’re leaving out might turn out to be…

“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” – Matthew 25:42-43

Just don’t let your child be responsible for driving that kid to make headlines for much more tragic reasons. Remember, almost every school shooting, starting with Columbine, was the result of unchecked bullying. And the bullies were inevitably the first victims.

Let’s not allow that to happen in our neighborhoods, to our kids. We can put an end to this growing culture of exclusion. It starts with you and me. And maybe a simple plate of cookies.

Global Politics and the Third Grade

My daughter has always been one of the tallest girls in her class, despite being one of the youngest.  Well, not just her class, but her grade.  Tall, blonde, blue-eyed and, of course, beautiful.  By mid-summer she looks more like Malibu Barbie than someone you’d believe I’d given birth to.  She’s always been confident, funny, and, being my child, naturally a bit over the top.  Through second grade, she was at the top of the invitation list for it seemed like every birthday party in her grade.  She knew everyone and everyone knew her.

So I was pretty incredulous when she came home complaining about being bullied by another member of her third grade class.  I’d met this child, and she was half my daughter’s height and seemed nice enough.  They shared a lot of the same interests and I thought would be fast friends.  Instead, what started out as a few insults slung in my daughter’s direction eventually grew to what seemed more like a full-scale, well-orchestrated campaign against her.  She came home crying of being relegated to lunch-time Syberia (I.e. sitting alone at the end of the cafeteria table) and heated sessions of tag that were more like a Jean Claude vanDamme movie than a typical recess game. The queen bee had declared her an enemy of the state and she was banned from all birthday parties and play dates.

We talked to a therapist.  We practiced all the recommended anti-bullying tactics at home.  She tried being nice to the bully, avoiding the bully, standing up to the bully and telling her teacher when the bully was cruel.  Nothing seemed to work and the battles seemed to escalate to an all out but very one-sided war.

Then one of the bully’s minions got caught in the act.  And it turned out the child didn’t like being part of the bullying process but didn’t know how to navigate the complex socio-politics of the third grade.  Her mother explained to her that any kind of bullying, even if it meant just excluding another child because a bully told her to, was not acceptable.  Then she talked to another of the minion’s moms.  I talked to my daughter and got a handle on the depth of the problem, then let her teacher know.

Today, my daughter made friends with the bully, who also received a lecture on the right way to treat her friends.  The two girls buried the axe and executed the equivalent of a peacetime treaty (they sat together at lunch and played together without incident).  And all it took was some of the troops standing up to the bully and saying, “no more.”

In the span of seven hours these two little girls accomplished what so many global leaders have failed to do in centuries – they worked out their problems and declared peace.  All it really took was one being brave enough to ask her enemy to be her friend, then both taking the time to get to know each other. Today, two young mortal enemies realized they’re more alike than different, and that they really do like each other after all.

Ah, what we grown-ups could learn from our grade-school aged kids!  Maybe world peace could be possible after all.  My daughter didn’t have to wield her superior strength and power to solve her problems.  She allied herself with the friends of her enemies, and together they were brave enough to initiate change by extending the olive branch and offering friendship and compromise.  No shots fired.  No casualties. Just peace.

DigiGirlz with Microsoft

Tuesday I had the privilege of participating in the annual DigiGirlz Day at the Microsoft Store in the Houston Galleria.  Every year, about 50 high school girls, educators, volunteers and Microsoft employees get together to promote the advantages of young women pursuing STEM college degrees and future careers.  The girls are from a variety of backgrounds and schools around Houston, some privileged, others from low income areas.   This year, we were blessed to have Texas DARS send a talented, visually-impaired young lady who injected so much energy and excitement into the event one would never have guessed she was anything but an average high school girl.

I was lucky enough to join a panel with six other successful women who were primarily IT leaders and one educator/author.  They each shared insights into their early lives, their educational and career journeys, and their secrets to happiness and success.  The girls were an outstanding audience, peppering the panel with creative and relevant questions that really inspired not only their peers, but the women who had come to do the inspiring.

Lately, I’ve suffered some moments of self-pity, lamenting the setbacks in my life that make things…complicated.  As I sat on that stool in front of those young, eager faces, (okay, some were yawning), and shared my life’s journey from poor minority kid to full scholarship college student, NASA nerd and finally computer geek, it dawned on me that I’ve already lived such a full and privileged life.  Sure, I had to work hard to get there and took some pretty tough knocks along the way, but nothing I’ve ever had to face holds a candle to what some of these young girls have already gone through.  And yet, there they were: bright-eyed and full of hope for the future, eager to hear what those of us who had made our way before them had to say.

My self-pity dissipated as I later talked one-on-one with the girl who was born blind in one and eye and with tunnel vision in the other.  Instead of letting her circumstances get the better of her, she had thrown herself full force into music, learning on her own to create her own mixes and ready to move on to writing her own music, and she was so excited to hear how I’d blended my geek life with my passion for music.  We spent some time talking about how far Windows Phone technology has come in terms of accessibility for the visually impaired, and explored some of the music apps in the Windows Store, excitedly exchanging ideas about how she can prepare herself for a future audition with my alma mater, U.T. – Austin.

I know the big software vendors are sweating the transformation of the digital world from one of proprietary, expensive software suites to a proliferation of low-cost, simplified applications – “apps” – that do everything from entertaining you with highly popular games to teaching you how to read music or play piano and still manage your budget with a few pokes of the touch screen.  The big vendors may still own the enterprise, but the average consumer can now do much of what they need (short of the top productivity applications) for less than $10.  If your income is dependent on those high profit, proprietary software sales, this is a scary, scary time.  But for people like the girls I met this week, the new digital landscape opens the door to whole new worlds for the underprivileged who once had no chance to compete with their upper-middle class peers when it came to breaking into top colleges and careers.  Why?  Because for $6.99 kids in the ‘hood can take piano lessons from a pro, or for less than $3 sharpen their math and engineering skills.

Sure, many of the girls I met this week had never seen nor touched an iPad, let alone a high-end machine like the Surface Pro or Sony’s Vaio Duo before walking into the Microsoft store that day.  But as more and more schools dedicate budget to issuing tablets to students, and as the price of these devices begins to drop, there is great hope for the future for these bright young women.  With technology becoming so accessible to all, I can’t wait to see what this next generation of young women can accomplish!

Recommended: Check out Developer Junior to learn how to program your own web sites, video games and apps.

%d bloggers like this: