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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.

“This Means War” = LOL Funny

This Means War Poster
This Means War

The sight of Tom Hardy taking a shot to the groin with a giant yellow paint ball in the televised trailer was enough to elicit a belly laugh from the blond mini-me who often accompanies me to the local Cinemark.  I even momentarily considered letting her come along to check this one out, having decided based on that same trailer that the premise of Fox’s This Means War  was a unique enough twist on the usual love triangle comedy to get my attention.  I’m glad I didn’t.  Not that I didn’t find the film enjoyable – I laughed often and hard from beginning to end, and I loved every semi-predictable minute of it.  No, it’s because it definitely more than earned it’s PG-13 rating with humor that certainly would’ve made my dead grandmother blush and left me with a lot of explaining to do over topics not exactly appropriate for second graders.  And quite frankly, I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed myself as much if I were worried about having to squirm out of all that explaining.  (FYI – This film was originally rated R and only changed to PG-13 at the last minute thanks to the taming of Chelsea Handler’s character.)

So why use “semi-predictable” earlier?  Let’s face it, we all know the boys are going to fight over the girl.  We all know the spies are going to fight the bad guy and at some point the girl will be in peril and require rescue.  We all know the girl is going to struggle with choosing which guy she wants, and we all know there’ll be a happy ending.  It’s what Dowling and Kinberg fill in between the predictable parts that makes this movie so much fun.  No, I’m not going to tell you because it will ruin the movie for you by removing the shock value that makes most of the funnier moments worthwhile.  Suffice to say, watch for some uncomfortably hilarious moments involving Chelsea Handler as, Trish, (Lauren’s BFF) Cheetos, wine and a chubby hubby.  Any of us who have ever spent much time as a single female can likely claim to have a friend like Trish, and our lives are certainly much more interesting as result.

I have no doubts about why the critics hate this movie.  It’s a little too obvious that nice guy Tuck (Tom Hardy) will, well, play nice and eventually find love, and that FDR (Chris Pine) will do what self-absorbed, cocky womanizing jerks do just to prove they can.  And, of course, Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), will wrestle with the guilt of dating two men like any self-respecting professional, single-quirky-good-girl looking for “the one” would.  We can all agree that, though the cast carries their characters off perfectly and hits every comedic mark, no one will be winning any Oscars for this one.  And, as usual, the critics scoff at the low-brow humor because it offends their refined sensibility of what the art of film should be.  But for the rest of us, that low brow humor is just what the doctor ordered on a rainy afternoon and certainly enough to repeatedly crack up the entire theater, which was amazingly full for such a widely proclaimed terrible film.  (Sorry, just quoting the professional movie watchers on that one.)  I for one am not ashamed to admit that I found this movie entertaining partly because I certainly wouldn’t be heartbroken to find myself the reason two super-hot men were locked in an epic battle, even if the whole scenario is so completely unrealistic as to be ridiculous.  I also dream about owning a burnt orange Lamborghini Aventador.  I think both have an equal chance of happening.  But I digress.

I think what I loved most about this movie was that the characters weren’t perfect.  I loved that Lauren and Trish conjure memories of conversations with similar friends as they discuss the flaws of both suitors. I love that, like any other man I’ve ever met, the two eavesdropping guys make no bones about using those declared flaws to throw each other off balance in pursuit of the girl.  Of course it’s a stretch of the imagination that these two highly trained, very eligible spies would put their careers and their lives at risk for a woman who does marketing analysis on everything from home appliances to military parachutes for a living but can’t figure out which of these two distinctly different men is more appealing to her.  (It’s an even bigger stretch to think any woman outside of Hollywood would be lucky enough to meet two interesting men who look like that in the same day and find her worth fighting over.) But this film is all about fantasy and taps into some of the hidden daydreams most single women have harbored at least once in their lives while suffering through yet another boring date with your average [insert dull profession here].  Sure, in reality if two guys were acting the way these two bozos do, we’d declare them psychotic and change our phone numbers.  In the movie world, though, it’s almost flattering for a man to use our country’s multi-million dollar satellite system to gather intel that will help them figure out how to win the girl. And I’m good with that as long as it makes me laugh.

So you tell me, are the critics right to pan McG‘s latest Valentine’s Day effort, or did you laugh enough to buy the Blu-Ray later on?  I look forward to seeing your comments.

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