Imagine you’re driving carpool. Your child is sitting shotgun, constantly scanning the radio for everyone’s perfect song. The other three kids are rehashing their day. Everything is good until you hear one of the boys say to another, “Dude, you better improve your basketball skills! Do you have any idea how gay you were in PE class today! If it gets any worse you’re going to have go play on the girls team!” You immediately tense, look in the rearview mirror to gauge the kids’ reaction, and wonder if you should say something. In that instant several thoughts go through your head. You know it was bad but kids say words like that all the time. All the other kids seem to be laughing. If you say something you’re going to embarrass your child. It’s inappropriate to set rules for other people’s kids. And then the moment passes and you feel like you’ve lost your opportunity.
You don’t say anything. Many well-meaning parents can relate to this scenario. But the hard truth is that this is the adult behavior that supports bullying. These are the actions that come across as not wanting to be “the parent” in difficult situations because you’re afraid your child will get angry with you.
If you want to do your part to stop bullying, you have to understand the dynamics at play in that car and you have to say something. You have to clearly communicate what you stand for. So here are some suggestions for how to manage the situation.
When you hear the rude comment, take a deep breath, focus on what you’re about to say as you pull the car over, and put it in park. Take your seat belt off, and turn to face the kids in the back seat, while ignoring your son’s silent begging or death stares. As you make eye contact with all of them say,
You: Josh, I just overheard you tell Mike that he was gay to insult the way he’s playing basketball.
Josh: It’s just what we say! It doesn’t mean the same thing now! Mike doesn’t mind do you?”
Mike: “No, they’re just messing with me. I know they don’t mean it.”
You: Here’s the deal. Using words like gay, or like a girl to put someone down is just unacceptable.
Josh: But it’s not our fault if the girls are terrible at basketball that’s just a fact! And gay just means stupid.
You: That’s not the issue. The issue is using those words to make someone feel worthless and not as good as you are.
Josh gives you the stare that you are crazy and annoying. Your son stares out the window pretending he was born into a different family.
If any of you want to talk to your parents about what I just said, please do so. Everybody got it? Good—anyone want to drop by the park on the way home?
It’s also important to end by encouraging the kids to talk to their parents about what you said. Not only because it’s smart to be transparent when you have these teachable moments with other people’s children but it also protects you from any of the kids coming home and accusing you of “screaming and totally freaking out” to their parents.
By the way, this strategy works any time kids say inappropriate and/or mean things around you. I had one mother use this strategy in the car after years of silently putting up with her daughter and her friends trashing other girls. It was important for her to realize how her silence had contributed to the girls’ feeling that they could be so mean and cruel to others. Once she stood her ground, the girls’ behavior improved at home and school.
And one last point. Yes, in the moment when we speak out, we will absolutely embarrass children. In the short term, they won’t like us one bit for getting involved. But it’s only in these moments that our kids see evidence of what our values look like in action, that they really get what’s important to us. They understand that they have a mom or dad who is willing and able to take a public stand when you see people being cruel. That’s a lesson they can take with them for a lifetime.
Rosalind Wiseman helps families and schools with bullying prevention and media literacy. Her book "Queen Bees and Wannabes" inspired the hit movie "Mean Girls." She writes the Ask Rosalind column for Family Circle.