When my son was in fifth grade, his principal had my phone number on speed dial. That's never a good sign.
Maggie Vink: My son's first 10 years (before I adopted him) were spent bouncing from one home to another. Ten solid years of loose attachments, inconsistencies and broken promises can develop a certain amount of anger in a kid. And rightfully so. What's more, my son never had many opportunities to develop his social skills, nor does he easily trust others. These are the conditions for the playground version of the perfect storm.
Like any kid, my son loved recess. He's athletic and outgoing and the outdoor time gave him a chance to release energy. One day I was volunteering at the school and had a chance to watch my son playing with the other kids. He always wanted to pitch for kickball and would ignore the other kids when they asked for a turn. When lining up for an activity, my son would finagle his position until he was first in line. On the basketball court, he wouldn't pass the ball to anyone. Frankly, I was surprised that kids weren't having a bigger issue with my son's behavior.
At home, I talked to my son about what I saw and we discussed how to be a better friend. I made sure to invite his friends over so he could have one-on-one practice with social skills. I signed him up for a friendship skills class at his therapy clinic. Most importantly, maybe, I made sure to model good social skills when playing with my son.
Still, my son's problems at school persisted. Eventually, the other kids had had enough. Other kids started to make fun of my son, belittle him, physically push and shove him and deny him from joining in their reindeer games. My son was hurt and -- though I knew his poor social skills played a huge role in his disintegrating friendships -- my heart broke for him.
My son was making concerted efforts to be kinder on the playground. His social skills still weren't great and he was often oblivious to how his actions made others feel, but he was trying. With his whole heart, he was trying to be a good friend because there's nothing he wants more than to be liked ... to truly be a part of the group.
Unfortunately, he had become persona non grata on the playground. One group of boys in particular would follow my son around, taunting him. But they were smooth about it ... they did it quietly and flew under the radar of the playground's supervisor. My son, however, isn't a smooth operator. He doesn't take anything lying down. When he couldn't handle their put-downs any longer, he'd blow up. He'd yell, he'd push and he'd be ready for a fight. And he'd be so angry, he wouldn't even behave when an adult intervened. Every time it happened, I'd be called to come calm him down and, more often than not, he was suspended.
I agreed with the school's zero-tolerance policy. I agreed with my son's suspensions because what he did wasn't acceptable. The recent suicide death of Phoebe Prince reminds us of the damage bullying can cause. I was glad my son's school was standing up to bullying. But all sides of the coin need to be explored. My son was behaving like a bully at times -- he was a poor sport in team activities, he had little regard for other kids' feelings and he reacted with aggression when cornered. But the kids who repeatedly taunted my son were bullies, too. Maybe in a truer sense of the word, even. My son never meant to hurt or be unfair -- he was just so wrapped up in his enthusiasm for whatever game he was playing he didn't stop to think about anyone but himself. And while I don't condone my son's angry reactions, he never belittled anyone -- he just angrily refused to let them belittle him.
I don't have the solution. Schools don't have the staff to keep an eye on every single child and monitor every conversation. And kids need to learn to work out conflicts, because conflicts don't go away when we outgrow swings and slides. But when it comes to school bullying rules, all kids involved need to be treated the same and given appropriate consequences. That's why it's called a zero-tolerance policy. Otherwise, we're just teaching kids that it's okay to be a bully ... as long as you're quiet about it.