Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The "R" Word Revisited

Brian R. King, LCSW

Recent headlines about the epidemic of bullying, unfortunately, point to school systems overall that appear either indifferent to bullying, referring to it in some cases as “a right of passage that children must endure as a means of building character” (one school administrator actually said this in an IEP meeting I attended), or they minimize it as a misunderstanding. Others exercise willful ignorance under the guise that “We didn’t see it”-- as though the bully is supposed to say, “Teacher, looky here! I’m going to treat Johnny like crap now.” Give me a break! If a child bullies another student out of the view of a teacher, it’s still bullying and not an opportunity to evade responsibility because the bully is savvy enough to know when you aren’t looking.

Let me be clear, bullying is not a simple problem of the playground tough guy establishing his dominance while teachers are preoccupied. This problem isn’t caused by school or teachers looking the way.  It’s a larger social problem that we all bear responsibility for creating, allowing, and exacerbating.

The recent surge in bullying news has also opened up a lot of old wounds from my own childhood. That and today’s incident with my son reminded me of an incident when he was younger. An incident which brought me out of my shell in a big way, and opened the door for the self-advocate I have become. I’m revisiting the article I wrote about it back then, because it is still an issue that is out of control.  This needs to stop as fast as a bird slamming into a window (for you bird lovers I was just looking for a concrete metaphor to drive my point home).

It was about five years ago. We lived in another town then. My son came to me and informed me that there was a neighborhood bully who was targeting him. Even worse, the bullying often took place in front of other parents, who didn’t intervene. Once I heard that, my papa bear instincts reared up. It terrified me that I couldn’t look to my neighbors to be role models to their own kids or others when they were so clearly out of line.

I admit that, at the time, my neighbors were not that familiar with me, as I am not a social being, and their tendency to assemble in group was enough to keep me indoors. So, when my son told me what had happened I struggled with how to reach out to them, as I didn’t have a rapport with any of them.

I decided to write a letter that would allow me to organize my thoughts, choose my words carefully and eliminate the possibility of becoming nervous and tongue tied during a face to face interaction. Below in italics is the letter I constructed.
Hi Neighbor,

My name is Brian King. My wife and I live at (address omitted). You may be familiar with our older son, Zachary.

The reason I’m writing this letter is to introduce Zach to you, and help clarify some misunderstandings. Zachary has been diagnosed with a form of Autism called Asperger’s syndrome. This often causes him difficulty when interacting with your children, as first and foremost Autism Spectrum Issues make it difficult for Zachary to socialize in a conventional way.

Zachary is a very sweet and honest boy. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm and self-assuredness can come off as pushy, and sometimes controlling. Zachary can be very talkative and I understand that he can sometimes require a lot of energy to be around.

I apologize for not having made an effort to meet you, but as they say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and my boys inherited their autistic features from me. Thus, I am shy to new people and am anxious around groups of people. Make no mistake, I am eager to get to know you.

Most importantly, I am writing this because I want to extend myself in every way to help support you in supporting your children, and mine, as they try to form friendships in the neighborhood. Zach has a clumsy social style, due to his Autism Spectrum challenges, and your children, no doubt, find him frustrating to deal with, at times.  I don’t expect your children to understand this about him because, how could they.

Unfortunately, a problem has arisen that compelled me to write this letter. One boy on this street has taken to routinely calling Zachary a “retard.” In the special needs community this is the equivalent of calling an African American the “N” word. For a child who knows he is challenged and is trying his best, this word cuts deeper than you can imagine.

Though we may not have met, I would love to meet you and support you as you support my son in his efforts to make friends in the neighborhood.  He will no doubt have challenges his entire life in socializing and being understood. I would hate to see his neighbors turn their backs on him.

I am here to support you, and your child’s efforts, in getting to know Zach. Please, by all means, feel free to let me know when he has pushed one too many of your buttons and I’ll gladly come get him. I’d rather him continue to be welcome at your home than to be a consistent source of aggravation. I am here whenever you need to talk.

Thank you so much,

Brian King
That’s the letter that was hand delivered, by Zach, to the parents of each child he played with. Zach was allowed to read the letter before he delivered it and was comfortable with doing so. I am happy to say that the response to the letter was extremely positive.

The first parent to receive the letter came over immediately and thanked me for it. He had experienced Zach’s intensity first hand and had experienced the frustration addressed in the letter. He told me of the difficulty he had at times knowing how to interact with Zach, and was at a loss over how to address it with parents he’d never met. This letter not only gave him the insight he needed into Zach’s unique behavior, but also in how to approach me. He also offered to more closely monitor the social interactions of the neighborhood kids and to introduce me to the other parents when I was ready.

The second parent to come to the house was the mother of the unnamed bully in the letter. She said she knew upon reading the letter that it was him and that this has been an ongoing issue with him. She explained that he too has social awkwardness, is bullied at school and often resorts to taking it out on others.

She further stated that upon reading the letter she called a family meeting and had her son read the letter to the family and had a discussion about the impact of bullying. After that discussion the boy who’d called Zach “retard” asked if he could come over and apologize to Zach.

In all honesty, I did have reservations about sending out this letter in the first place, as I quietly feared that my neighbors wouldn’t care, because so many stood by while the bullying took place. It would seem that the letter instilled a little self awareness and accountability in the parents without specifically pointing fingers.

If you feel the need to write a similar letter to your neighbors and fear it will result in negative consequences I, unfortunately, cannot promise you that it won’t. I was very fortunate in the response I received. However, I assure you, it is far more damaging to have your child be excluded and bullied because you’ve allowed the neighbors to remain uninformed and ill equipped to interact with your child. Please don’t underestimate your neighbors.

If you want to stop bulling start in your home, your neighborhood and your community. Begin the dialogue and continue the dialogue until bullying stops.

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