In an earlier blog, A Good Left Hooks Has No Gender, I wrote about girls who bully. Today, following a similar theme, my guest, fellow writer Suzanne Santillan, shares a story about when her son was bullied by a girl at school.

When she’s not busy with her two sons, her husband, the dog, Buddy, and a turtle named Dave, Suzanne works as a freelance graphic artist and blogs with partner Sarah Womes Tomp at Writing on the Sidewalk. And she even finds time to write books. Her first picture book, Grandma’s Pear Tree (Raven Tree Press, 2010), is the winner of the Golden Moonbeam Award.

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 The Bully in Pigtails

The first sign of trouble was when my 11-year-old son returned home from school with ripped knees in his pants two days in a row. He claimed that he had fallen down, and knowing how he liked to hurry from destination to destination, we didn’t question his answer. He had been in middle school for only a few months and it seemed like he was still adjusting to the larger school and even larger student body. But we decided to watch him a little closer.

The next day, in addition to his ripped knees, his hands were scuffed and he had a bruise on his elbow. This was more than a clumsy boy; this was the sign of a boy being pushed around. After dealing with his injuries, I sat my son down and asked him what was going on. He told me that he was having a problem with one of the girls at school. She would catch him as he walked down the hall and push him from behind. He was very distressed because we had always taught him to treat girls with respect and that you do not hit them.

We discussed some possible strategies to deal with the situation and hoped for the best. He came home the next day with two skinned knees, a cut on his arm, and broken glasses.

It was time for Mom to get involved.

Armed with the broken glasses and righteous indignation, we made an appointment with the school guidance counselor. My son was instructed to select the picture of the girl from a page of photographs. I was surprised by his selection. She looked like an angel, with blonde hair, big blue eyes, and her hair in pigtails. This was his bully?  The counselor nodded her head knowingly and said that this is what she expected. This girl, who looked like an angel, was notorious for terrorizing the boys. She especially liked to target the boys like my son who had been raised to treat girls with respect, because they didn’t fight back. I was appalled. How could teaching your son to do the right thing put him at risk for harm? And what could I do about it?

After the school visit, we sat down with my son and revised some of the teachings we had taught him. We explained that while we didn’t want him to hit anyone, he did have the right to defend himself. If he was being pushed around by a girl, he had the right to grab her arms to tell her to stop and then go ask for help. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it has served him well.

And the bully? She was suspended for her role in beating up my son. The school stressed to the parents that if we wanted to have them repair the broken glasses, they would have to pay for the repairs. She began attending a new school a short time later.

Was our solution perfect? No. But it did give my son a new confidence that helped him face other situations that he encountered. I came away with a new understanding that bullies come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes they even wear pigtails.

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Suzanne’s story is a perfect example of why parents must be vigilant: children don’t always share what’s going on. Often they believe it’s embarrassing to admit they need help. And if it’s a girl who’s bullying a boy, that can be even more humiliating.

In Suzanne’s case, she stepped in and stood up for her child, and that made all the difference. But does it always work out so well?

Do you know of any situation where a parent stepping in actually made it worse for the bully’s target?

Does age make a difference? Is it safer to step in for younger children, whereas intervening might make it worse for older ones, who are expected to take care of themselves?

I can’t speak for other parents, but one of the most difficult challenges for me as a parent was knowing when to step in and when to back off. I know there were times when I embarrassed my son by trying to find a solution instead of giving him the tools to fight his own battles.

By realizing the rules needed to change, Suzanne adapted, and gave her son tools to use if a similar challenge ever arose again.

What tools have you given your children to fight back against a bully?

Are they working?

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