Moms Discuss How To Protect Kids From Bullies

Bullying can be a common childhood challenge, but recent cases have left kids badly beaten or even dead. And confrontations are no longer restricted to the playground, but have taken form in cyberspace as well. Mocha Moms Jolene Ivey and Leslie Morgan Steiner, and guests moms Danette Tucker and Cathie Deadrich discuss how parents can intervene to keep their kids safe.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Still to come, if you have an adjustable-rate mortgage the dreaded resets might be coming. Our money coach tells us how to cope, and our fashion maven gives us some ways to be fly on the cheap.

But first, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few Mocha Moms. We visit with members of this mothers' support group each week for their comments and some savvy parenting advice.

Today we want to talk about a common challenge of childhood. Common but traumatic nonetheless - bullying. Everybody remembers the neighborhood bully - the one who stole lunch money, instigated school yard fights, or spread nasty rumors. But who are we kidding? Today bullying has taken on new and terrifying forms. Some kids have access to weapons, or use bullying as part of gang recruitment, and cyberspace can add a new and awful twist to this age-old problem. So what can parents do when the bullies strike?

Here to talk about this are the Mocha Moms Jolene Ivey and Leslie Morgan Steiner. And I'm pleased to welcome new mom Danette Tucker, as well as Cathie Deadrick - she works with school systems on bullying prevention strategies. Welcome everybody.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Danette, I'm going to start with you because I know a lot of us think about bullying as a boy problem particularly. But your daughter recently had an experience, and she's what - 12?

DANETTE: Ah. No, she actually - she just turned, 11.

MARTIN: Just turned 11...

TUCKER: But it was - it happened before her 11th birthday about two weeks ago, when she was 10. And my daughter is large...

MARTIN: Yeah, tell me about it...

TUCKER: She's very developed for her age - so are her friends, and bullying in our neighborhood is very bad, because it comes with weapons, and you know, you have to worry about life or death. And her and three of her buddies who were at aftercare, were attacked by four kids from the public housing project that is two blocks from my kids aftercare. They came out of their project to come to the school to pick on them, threatening to beat them up and threatening to fight them, and threatening to cut them, threatening to jump them. And they walked away, they never said anything. So they followed them, and the parents stopped it, but then they want to fight the parents.

MARTIN: Wow. Jolene, five boys - have you had to deal with this?

IVEY: Well, I have had to deal with it, but another thing is that it comes from the parents, the parents of the children who are bullies. I mean, they have raised children who are not being respectful. They are not reminding their children, your actions have a consequence - when you treat someone a certain way, this is what happens. So, I think that's what we all need to think about.

MARTIN: Leslie, we're talking offline about this. You raised the issue of how diversity can cloud up the bullying issue. And is that because you're dealing sometimes in a diverse environment with parents who are not on the same page about what's appropriate and what's not appropriate? Tell me about what you have in mind?

MORGAN STEINER: Well, I think it's, you know, that bullying is a really - it's a normal part of human nature and of childhood. But one of the things that I've observed that's interesting is that something that might be bullying in one context is not bullying in another context, and it's confusing for kids.

I'm Caucasian, as is my husband, and we have three kids. Our only boy is 11, and he goes to a school that is pretty white, and they have a very clear, no bullying, no physical harassment. You can't touch or degrade any kid. But my son also, since he was in second grade, has played AAU basketball. He's one of the only white kids on a mostly black team, in a mostly black league. And it's been an extraordinary experience for him, really, really positive, but there are different standards. Part of it is just basketball, that it's a really rough, physical sport. But he's been shoved into the stands, he has scars and bruises all over his body from it, and it's not considered bullying. But then when he goes back to his white-dominated school he cannot be rough like that, and so we've had to explain to him...

MARTIN: Or verbal too. Like verbally aggressive with kids, that's not the way...

MORGAN STEINER: Yeah, yeah. It's a whole different thing. And it's not....

MARTIN: Yeah...

MORGAN STEINER: On his team, it's great - they're like a family - but when they're out competing, it's different. And it's good because it's made him tough in a way that he would never get toughened up at his school. But he has to understand, even, you know, starting when he was in second grade, that different rules apply in different neighborhoods.

MARTIN: Cathie, why don't you pick up the ball here? You teach bullying prevention...

CATHIE DEADRICK: Ahah...

MARTIN: Frederick County school system. Is there a common thread to who's a bully, who tends to be a bully, and the way bullying unfolds?

DEADRICK: Excellent question. I actually work for the Mental Health Association of Frederick County, and we do programs in the schools. Dani's daughter did a lot of things right. We have a program called D.I.G. D stands for Defend - defend yourself with your words, never with your fists. The I is for ignore - you can walk away, as she tried to do. And one of the most important and effective tools is a group - that she was with a group - because in an average classroom of 30 children there might be one or two bullies, and there might be one or two victims or targets. But look how many bystanders. There's so many more bystanders than there are anything else. We just really need to look to that resource.

MARTIN: Dani, one of the things - if you would pick up the story here - I think one of the things that you did is go up there as a parent and try to make a visible presence as a parent.

TUCKER: I had to, because in my neighborhood you have to. It's the hood. You have to make a physical presence or they will eat you alive. So when I got there, I grabbed her and said, let's go, and you better point them out. Because if I didn't do that, they'd pick on her every day, all day, and I need to go to work, and I need her to be able to get that bus to her activities and not be scared. Because, you've got to let them know...

MARTIN: And what was mom going to do? You were going to physically confront the kids?...

TUCKER: I was going to let them know this is my child, don't put your hands on her. If you put your hands on my child, you've got to answer to me. Because I have to speak in their language. I would love to sit down and talk to them, but they're not speaking that language, because like Jolene said, their parents are not training them in that way. They're training them to be an ignorant.

MARTIN: Did you consider the possibility of confronting their parents? And saying, I need to talk to your parents...

TUCKER: Yes, that's what I went looking for, because I hoped mama was around. Where is your mother? She's not here. We're going to talk to somebody, because this is my child. You cannot do this, you are not allowed to do this, or you're going to have to see me.

MARTIN: But they then challenged you, right? Didn't one of the girls threaten you?...

TUCKER: Yeah, of course they did. But they know now. There's a challenge here, and that's the only language they understand.

MARTIN: Mm. Cathie, what if the kid threatens with a weapon? And says, I'm going to go get a knife, I'm going to go get a gun. What do you do?

DEADRICK: And said that to...

MARTIN: To Danette, or the child?

DEADRICK: Well, I would definitely go to an authority on that, especially in the school systems. The school systems - they do want to hear about bullying incidents. They'd rather hear about that than the consequences afterwards.

MORGAN STEINER: Although, I have to say that when I reported that one of my kids was being bullied, the school did nothing.

MARTIN: Can you tell me what happened?

MORGAN STEINER: Well, there were just kids constantly harassing one of my kids, picking on him - you know, he's smart and well behaved and he speaks well. Boy, they sure didn't like that there very much. So he was just constantly excluded, and also physically threatened. And he wasn't telling me about it at first. It took a while to figure out, his grades were suffering, and we just finally took him out, and put him into a school that we're just now finishing paying for.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, that raises a question. A lot of times kids don't tell their parents. Leslie, can you talk to me about your son? Did he complain or...

MORGAN STEINER: No, he...

MARTIN: Or did you notice that there was distress around the fact that there were really different cultures that he was trying to acclimate to?

MORGAN STEINER: We were at a lot of the games, so we saw a lot of it ourselves, and he talked to us a lot. But kids, when they get to a certain age, they don't want their parents to intervene. Because last year, when he was 10, we talked to the coach about it, and he asked us to never talk to the coach again because he was embarrassed.

But I also wanted to talk about another story involving him, when he was younger, when we went to the authorities at the school. He was being bullied by another kid in his class, this was in second grade, and the kid was physically punching him in the nose, pushing him down - really being physical - and the school didn't do anything. And the school has a written anti-physical harassment policy, but the kid who was doing the bullying was the son of a beloved teacher at the school. And we had to really, really be a squeaky wheel, and send written communication via emails so that we had a record, and really call it to the school's attention.

Because I think sometimes too often people ignore this. They say it's a normal part of childhood, and kids have to figure out how to deal with it. And there really is a role for parents, and teachers, and the group - we can be part of the group that can stop it from happening.

MARTIN: Mm. Danette, what have you talked to Imani about in the wake of this, about how she can go forward here?

TUCKER: We have a new slogan and it's like, you know, I know you won't pick the fight, but you've got to be ready the fight picks you. So she is taking martial arts when she starts HAP on Wednesday, Higher Achievement Program, which she gets picked on because she's a smart kid. I don't want to go to my child's funeral. She's got to defend herself.

I wish I did live in that world where we could sit down and say OK, look guys, don't throw no punches. I don't live there.

MARTIN: Mm.

MORGAN STEINER: This is Leslie. I actually totally agree, and I think that you need to teach boys and girls how to defend themselves.

TUCKER: Right.

MORGAN STEINER: And I think the best way is to use words, and they're really, really effective. But there are times we have told our kids that we don't ever want...

TUCKER: Right...

MORGAN STEINER: Them punching somebody in the face or being the aggressor, but they absolutely have the right to push somebody away. You don't want to start a fight, but you have the right to defend yourself.

DEADRICK: I have to disagree. I would never advocate violence. Never. I think two wrongs don't make a right, and I've seen too many times where both of the children get in trouble, plus it's not the way you can handle life when you grow up.

MARTIN: But if a kid is whaling on you, what are you supposed to do? Just crawl up in a ball and take it?

DEADRICK: Well, I mean, yeah, defensive motions like that. But as far as fighting - I mean, I have examples of articles, where two young men got into a fight in the hallway over a girl. They didn't mean for it to escalate to someone dying, but one shoved the other one. He fell. He hit the back of his neck just such a way that he broke his neck and he died. So, I always - I bring this example to the kids, and I say where are these two young men? One is in jail and one is dead.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and I'm speaking with the Mocha Moms about dealing with bullies.

There's a whole other element to bullying - it's not always physical. There's cyberbullying. Jolene, have you had to deal with this? And talk to me about it.

IVEY: I have not had to deal with it personally, thank God, but I'm very well aware of stories in the news. And fortunately the Maryland legislator this year did pass a law to require our school system to come up with a policy to deal with cyberbullying, because it's such a new thing. I mean, it's not like you can just whisper to a friend, and then you've spread a rumor. You're putting something for the whole world to see when you start a rumor on the internet, and it has really serious consequences that people don't always foresee. So schools are now going to get involved here in Maryland in this issue.

MARTIN: Has anybody - Leslie, have you had an experience with this? Your son is a little young for this...

MORGAN STEINER: My kids are still a little too young to be dealing with this, but what I know about it, brings up the issue of where are parents and teachers in this? Because these kids don't have their own computers. None of them have the money to get their own computers. There has to be a parent who is supporting this, and I think that bullying has a lot to do with parents being underinvolved, or sometimes overinvolved, in their kids' lives.

And something we haven't talked about yet, but I think is really relevant, is that in these days with there is so much helicopter parenting, that parents sometimes can really add to the bullying problem by being bullies themselves in more subtle ways. Either by bullying teachers about a kid's grade, or standing up for their kid too much, or indulging their child too much. Whether it's with a computer, or an internet account. Or you know that terrible case where the woman got involved with, you know, and helped cause this young girl's suicide by using the internet herself to harass the girl.

MARTIN: There is a story that's being much in the news about a young woman who committed suicide after, apparently, the mother of a neighbor created this kind of fictional interest, this boy who was fictionally interested in her, in a Facebook account and then turned on her. And this was apparently some sort of retaliation for the fact that the girls had been friends at one point, and one girl lost more weight than the other. There's just this very complicated story. But there have been a number of, as Jolene and Leslie have indicated, a number of stories where cyberbullying has resulted in teens committing suicide.

But, tell me what is it that you think is the appropriate way to intervene? Especially because kids at that age, part of the reason they want Facebook accounts, is they want privacy. They don't want people looking over their shoulder. They want to have this little private adolescent or pre-adolescent world.

MORGAN STEINER: Right. Well, what I talked to my kids about is, you know, how would they feel if this was done to them? I also am a big fan of not letting them have a computer in their room, or some place where they can hide out and do it. And also I think it is really critical to be one step up ahead of your kids. And I've talked to my kids about this subject, even though they haven't gotten to the stage where they're experiencing themselves, but to talk to them when they are still listening to me, and telling them not to do this and that it's not right.

MARTIN: Mm. Cathie.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Has this come up in your world, with the schools?...

DEADRICK: Very much so. It was actually MySpace, and I do a program for parents - you don't know their password, no MySpace. Bottom line. You're doing them a favor. You're protecting them from themselves until they leave your home. We've had a lot of cyberbullying incidents in Frederick County and around the state.

MARTIN: Can you give me an example?

DEADRICK: Well, Ryan Patrick Halligan was not in our state, but he's the poster boy now for cyberbullying. He developed an online relationship with a girl - an eighth grade girl. She said she liked him, and then she purposely dropped him at the end of summer in front of all their friends. Other kids got online and IMed Ryan, and encouraged him to kill himself, and he did - he hung himself.

Guess when the parents found the instant-message conversations? After he was dead. So now the father wishes that he had been paying more attention to the instant-message conversations that his son was having. Because now, the bully is not just on the playground on in the neighborhood. The bully's following the child home, and they don't even have that as a sanctuary.

MARTIN: Are there commonsense guidelines that you wish were in place that might not be? Dani?

TUCKER: I just want to add - I'm glad you asked that, because I do. I'm one of those parents - parents, you know to me, give the kids too much freedom. It's common sense to me I'm in everything. My son has MySpace. My daughter has MySpace. The only reason you can have it, is because mama's in it. I read every message. I'm the nosiest mom. They hate it, but they are going to have to live with it.

MARTIN: Mm. Jolene, you indicated that some frustration and also Leslie, you did it too. Schools, even though they have these stated policies, you don't really feel that they are as aggressive in following them up as they could be. What would you like to see?

IVEY: Well, it's got to be something where it goes further than the school doors. Right now, it seems schools, a lot of times, feel that they can't do anything about cyberbullying because it doesn't happen on the school yard. But it does effect what happens inside the school.

MARTIN: What about this calling up the parent of the kid who is sending these messages and saying, listen, your son, your daughter, is sending these messages. I think you ought to know about this.

IVEY: Well, absolutely but a part of the problem is the a lot of parents still say, so what. Or they don't believe it or whatever. You need to be able to take it to another level, and to have some further consequences. If the parents were that involved and concerned you wouldn't be having this problem.

MARTIN: Leslie, what about you?

MORGAN STEINER: I think that parents sometimes are really hypocritical. That we say bullying is bad, but then we do it ourselves. And we don't use the same strategies that Cathie has been talking about. And we're a little bit afraid to talk to other parents, and confront other parents about kids' behavior. Parents are kind of too involved in their kids' lives, but they also favor their own kids instead of looking at the greater good of the community.

MARTIN: OK. Cathie I want to ask a final thought from you. Could you just give us some closing thoughts about common sense ways that people can deal with these situations as they arise? Noting that we live in a world in which you don't always know whether a kid is armed, supervised, has a parent who is on the same page as you.

DEADRICK: OK. Well, with cyberbullying, you need to print out the conversations - the instant-message conversations. Now, their screen name is not the same as their real name, but if you carry these conversations into the school, other kids are brought in as witnesses, and they can say OK, Angel Kisses - that's so and so. And they can piece together who is doing the cyberbullying.

Some other programs that I've seen work are when schools develop a one-friend program. That means that they take a group of kids who want to be leaders in the school, and they are go make a friend with someone who doesn't have any. And they really do want to help, they want to be involved. So, we really need to get the kids on our side with this, and create a better environment for them as well.

MARTIN: The Mocha Moms, Jolene Ivey, Danette Tucker, Leslie Morgan Steiner. Leslie is also the author of "Mommy Wars," a collection of essays about the work versus stay at home dilemma. They all joined us in our Washington studio. We were all pleased to be joined by Cathie Deadrick. She's a youth-education outreach coordinator with the Mental Health Association of Fredrick County, Maryland, and she was kind enough to join us here as well. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

PANELISTS: (In unison) Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Remember with Tell Me More, the conversation never ends. So we'd like to ask have you or your child had to deal with a bully recently? What worked? What didn't? What about cyberbullying? To tell us more, and to compare notes with other listeners, go to our blog at npr.org/tellmemore. You can also call our comment line at (202)842-3522. Again, that's (202)842-3522.

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