How to help your child see others as God’s creation
By Lisa Keith
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from around the corner in our small house. My daughter, then age 10, was telling her seven-year-old sister that if she didn’t do the evening chores for her, the older sibling would tell all the kids at school about a terrifying secret my youngest had been keeping. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard my daughter verbally threaten another child.
Much has been written on the topic of what to do if your child is being bullied in school or the neighborhood. But what if your child is the bully? Not so much. I have learned much about children, bullying and peacemaking in the years since that incident.
What do we need to know as parents?
Although conflict is a normal part of any relationship, bullying is not. There are many reasons why a child might act aggressively through bullying such as having a hard time dealing with frustration, impulsivity, behavior learned on the playground from a peer, even divorce. As parents, we want to know how to abate or prevent such behavior in our children.
Christian psychologist and author Angela Sabates says that, “Of prime importance here (in dealing with bullying) is the concept of humanizing others—considering their dignity and value as humans and treating them with moral consideration.” She points to the redemptive work of Christ as central to humanizing others and reaching a point of reconciliation.
What is bullying?
But let’s back up for a minute. What constitutes bullying or aggression? Mark Prever, British author and child counselor, attributes the following characteristics to bullying:
- Hurtful behavior where harm is intended
- Occurring over a period of time, repetitive or serial in nature, and
- Involving an imbalance of power where victims are often unable to defend themselves.
Bullying can take the form of physical aggression, verbal insults and gestures and social ostracizing. If continued over a long period of time, very real mental health consequences may ensue for both the bully and the victim, including embedding this negative behavior in future relationships.
Why do we bully?
Society at large, through media such as video games, advertising and film, often dehumanizes individuals or groups that have certain stigmatizing characteristics. When we see others as less-than, we are unable to form a meaningful connection with them. When this happens in children, a child can feel superior and that can lead to bullying. This dehumanizing effect gives the bully the notion that society condones the treatment of some others without compassion or empathy.
Let’s face it, most of us have engaged in aggressive acts of one kind or another—gossip, shunning, cutting someone off in traffic. When our children see us do these things, they are inferring the value—or lack of value—of others from our actions. How might a peacemaking perspective contribute to a solution to this nationwide problem?
What does Scripture say?
Let’s look at how Scripture addresses aggression. Ephesians 4:26 tells us, “In your anger do not sin.” It is quite normal to be angry or frustrated, and God recognizes this, but how we act on the negative emotions is what makes the difference. We know that Jesus too felt anger and yet did not sin. Furthermore, in Romans 12:10, Jesus admonishes us to be devoted to one another in brotherly love. He goes on to tell us, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18).
The belief that all human beings have an innate worth and value is the basis for a peacemaking perspective. Sabates also believes that all “humans have the capacity for other-centeredness” which, she says, is at the core of the creation, fall and redemption view. This “other-centeredness” is the ability to feel empathy; to put another’s needs before your own.
All human beings have worth as children of God and all of us have the capacity within ourselves to put another’s needs first. Since aggression toward others comes from a worldview in which others are dehumanized, we must humanize others for our children to see and we must teach the values of empathy, compassion and self-sacrifice—Agape love.
One way to accomplish this is by restoring the relationship between the bully and the victim. The bully must come to see the victim not as less-than but as inherently valuable, one of God’s creation. Jesus specifically includes all persons in his ministry, even those on the edges of society: the Samaritans (Luke 10:25-37), the lepers (Luke 17:11-19) and even tax collectors (Mark 2:16). “Christianity combats dehumanization by extending the right of personhood to all humans,” says Sabates.
Helping children make amends
There are five steps to resolving or reconciling a child who bullies to her/his victim.
1. Help your child to see others as Jesus sees them. Teach Jesus’ love in whatever age-appropriate ways you can. Teach your child that God loves all those we may see as different than our family or ourselves.
2. Help your child to find empathy. Do some role-playing. Ask “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” Or “What if that happened to your sister (or brother)?”
3. Give your child the words to admit their wrongdoing. Help your child know what to say to admit their part in the conflict. Write it down and practice it aloud with them.
4. Assist your child in reconciling himself or herself to the victim, if possible. Mennonite minister and FPU Professor Ron Claassen and his wife, Roxanne, have written the textbook Discipline that Restores. Although meant for the classroom, the book outlines a restorative process to repair relationships that can be used almost anywhere. Here are the steps to reconciliation they suggest:
- The bully must admit wrongdoing and make restitution.
- The victim and bully must decide whether they will reach a resolution of the situation by themselves, with a mediator’s assistance or with a mediator making the decisions.
- Those involved should write a contract, outlining what will be different going forward and giving a date when the mediator (parents or school official) will check back with those involved to make sure the agreement is still being followed.
5. Teach your child explicitly that those who may be different from us still deserve to be treated with courtesy and respect. Your child may benefit from participating in community service—such as volunteering at Special Olympics or a homeless shelter or working with the elderly—to learn what it means to be vulnerable and to meet others who may appear different in a wide selection of environments.
It is also important to model to our children appropriate ways to express negative emotions, such as anger or frustration, and exactly how to apologize. This modeling is perhaps the most important lesson I have learned about parenting.
As a special education teacher who has worked for more than 10 years with adolescents with emotional disturbance, I have come to know how essential it is to live my values out loud, in front of my students and my own children. My daughter is now 22. She still gets frustrated and angry, but handling her anger is becoming a bit easier with each progressing year.
Finally, be sure to enrich your child’s life with a variety of experiences in connection with others. Such experiences illustrate that even though we may be different on the outside, we are all human beings on the inside and are loved by an awesome God.
A 20-year veteran special education teacher, Lisa Clark Keith currently teaches full time at Fresno Pacific University in the School of Education. She lives in Fresno, Calif., with her three daughters, 19, 22 and 24, and attends Butler MB Church.
Books about bullying
Confessions of a Former Bully by Trudy Ludwig
The Feelings Book: The Care and Keeping of Your Emotions by Dr. Lynda Madison
Bullying Hurts: Teaching Kindness Through Read Alouds and Guided Conversations by Lester L. Laminack
The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to High School—How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle by Barbara Coloroso
The Bully and Me: Stories that Break the Cycle of Torment by Helen Carmichael Porter