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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.

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Boston, Bombs, Breaking News and Kids

We live in a terrifying world.  Since the days man walked the earth with monster-sized beasts bent on devouring us, something has always lurked in the dark corners and shadows of our minds reminding us of our mortality and the fragility of life.  For children, those monsters usually hide under their beds or in their closets at night.  But in the daylight, public places filled with people and the protection of policemen – those places are safe.

Then, in the middle of a favorite TV show, a sour-faced news anchor breaks in and lets us know that one of the three casualties of the bombs in Boston was an eight-year-old boy.  The monster is out of the closet and staring at us in 65 inches of 1080p high contrast color.  HD images of people scattering, smoke billowing, and bloody limbs on gurneys suddenly supply vivid detail to what the monster is capable of doing.  And, by the way, if it is a terrorist, the monster could be visiting your town next week when the next big athletic event in the U.S. kicks off just around the corner.

Naturally, my eight-year-old was suddenly very concerned, and asking questions no child should ever have to ask.  What’s a terrorist?  Why would someone want to blow up trash cans?  Are we safe?

It would be so easy to tell her that Boston is a long, long way away and nothing like that could ever happen here.  But she’s a smart kid and would figure out soon enough that the “breaking news” about how security was being beefed up around the country and was likely to be tight for the kick off of the MS 150 coming up meant this was possible close to home.  Instead, we talked truthfully, though carefully, about how some people in this world seek attention by hurting others.  And that’s wrong.

She asked if anything like that ever happened here in Texas.  “No, honey, I don’t remember anything like that ever happening here.”

“Maybe that’s because Texans would never let someone do something like that,” she offered.

“Maybe.  The good thing about Texans is that our culture is to be kind and to help each other.”  It is true that Texans are notorious for being in everyone’s business and are significantly more likely to get involved if they see someone doing something wrong.  That is one thing I adore about the culture of the good ol’ South.  (You’d be an idiot to try anything too stupid in Texas.  Just ask Santa Anna.)  And the good people of Boston proved once again yesterday that the capacity to help each other in a crisis isn’t limited to the states bordering the Gulf Coast.

In the midst of the attention-mongering talking heads who repeatedly interrupted our regularly scheduled programming over the past 24 hours to tell us no one knows anything yet, the real story our kids need to hear went largely untold.  When your kids ask about the bombing, the best thing to talk about is not just how frightening this tragic event is, but how blessed we are to live in a country that repeatedly rises above.  My Texas princess was quick to explain how, if she saw someone putting something weird in a trash can or even trying to steal a purse from an old lady on the street, that she’d go ninja on them and then take them to the police.  While I nixed her first plan, I was happy to gush over what a brilliant idea it was to tell the authorities when she saw someone doing anything suspicious.

Although it may not prevent all crime, I guarantee if we all pay a little more attention to what’s going on around us and show just enough bravery to take appropriate action when we see something we know is wrong, we’ll breathe a little bit easier than most of us were on the morning of April 15th.

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