Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011

What if My Son Is a Bully?

The other day, my son came to me brandishing a second-hand T-shirt he wanted to buy. It bore the words "I'm a Bully. I'm a Bully. I'm a Bully." My first instinct, I'm not proud to admit, was to surreptitiously look around to see if anyone was watching. Then I smiled wanly and told him to put it back. I was pretty sure he was joking. A few weeks earlier, in the same vintage emporium, he had selected a T-shirt that said "Doin' more to serve the Lord in '94!" We didn't buy that one either.

Nevertheless, his joviality around the subject of bullying was a little unnerving. Do we have one of those sons? When his classmates grow up to overcome great obstacles and be successful are they going to tell future interviewers it was all because my son had picked on them in middle school? I Googled "My son is a bully" and was rewarded with lots of stories about how bullies behave like that because of what happens at home, which can't be right, unless it's my husband's fault. (And boy, if that's true, he is going to get it when I get home.)

Adding fuel to my fears was the inescapable truth that my 13-year-old son, who says I can write about him if I use his stage name, Jamal, shares many of the traits bullies commonly have. He's highly impulsive. He's dyslexic, a fact we were a little slow to figure out, and so for a couple of grades he felt ostracized and inadequate. He was held back a year and still winces if anyone mentions it. And he's not one of those dyslexics, like Steven Spielberg or Richard Branson, who can get his self-esteem from being freakily good at something else.

Actually, that's not quite true. He does have one exceptional ability: he can detect a hot button a mile away and depress it with remarkable accuracy. Case in point: just from the name, he thinks Asperger's is the most awesome disease/food group ever. (Say it aloud, while imagining you're a 13-year-old boy.) His elementary school made such a big deal of Martin Luther King Day that by fourth grade he had his own version of the "I have a dream..." speech, in which the little black boys and black girls and little white boys and white girls all did something else entirely. He likes to pretend he's speaking in tongues in church. Episcopalian church.

And yes, I have seen him misuse this unerring talent for locating delicate issues. He's merciless to his youngest sister, swatting at her vulnerable spots daily both verbally and physically. He told the brainy, sensitive, vegetarian girl next door that she couldn't come over because we were murdering polar bears. He made fun of a girl in a wheelchair at his school.

We're not tolerant of this behavior. He has been sent to his room, deprived of privileges, fined, made to write lines and endured several long parental lectures. But he can't help himself. Button. Press. (One comfort: we're pretty sure he's never teased anyone online. That would require way too much reading. Plus, taunts like "Evry one at skool hats u because u r a idoit" are a bit of a giveaway.)

Jamal has many of the qualities of a bully. On the other hand, he's a wildly fun person to be around. He's exuberant and funny and has odd ideas and opinions about everything. The level of enthusiasm with which his teachers talk about him is robust even for people in the special education field, who seem to have superhuman abilities at finding something to praise.

And sometimes, thankfully, his talent for spotting frailty goes the other way. Jamal's uncannily good at cheering up his sister when she's low. So attuned is he to toddlers that he has a standing invitation from the nursery at church to hang out. The brainy girl next door still comes over and the one in the wheelchair, a good friend of his who had broken her hip, giggled at his teasing. The other day when a new third grader lost it on the school bus, it was Jamal who went to comfort him. ("Also," he said later, "that kid has an iPad.")

I asked the deputy principal of his school if Jamal were a bully and he looked appalled. (I suspect that might have been at me, though, that I would even suggest such a thing, let alone write about it.) I'm reasonably certain my son has engaged in behavior that looks like bullying. But it feels reductive — not to mention scary — to say he's a bully. The border between bullying and teasing is not obvious to me, but I know he's not predatory; he shoots from the hip at random things that move. When he picks on his sister, it plays like an old home movie of my three brothers, whom I adore. At least I do now.

Since Jamal's already reached the mocking phase of the anti-bullying initiatives, it's clear he's heard about the subject more than once. Like most kids, he knows it's not O.K. to be a bully, just like we know it's bad to eat donuts for breakfast. But under certain circumstances, we still do it. Kids switch positions, sometimes by choice sometimes to prevent themselves from being the victim. In the end, there's only so much adults can do. All the lessons we try to teach kids aren't nearly as powerful as the ones they learn themselves.

The most effective thing Jamal's school did was to make kids sit next to students they didn't know during lunch period for a week. It wasn't that they all had new friends, but there were fewer strangers. It's one thing to turn a blind eye to a bully picking on someone you don't know. It's another thing when you've shared a cheese stick. And Jamal, who I'm guessing got to sit with gamers, admits that he learned a lot — even if it was mostly about Call of Duty.

I've come to the conclusion that we've got to be careful about how we toss around the term bully. Jamal's no mini Albert Schweitzer, but he is a regular kid. He can be stingingly insensitive and cruel in one second and incredibly empathetic and kind the next. We're just trying to get him to "the next" a little more often. And modify his taste in T-shirts.