We received and answered a question from a concerned mother about her pre-adolescent son who was engaged in some bullying activity.  Here is the question and our response about this issue. 

Q.  My wife and I were shocked to receive a call from our 12-year-old son's school informing us that he is part of a group that has been mocking a male classmate they believe to be gay. Our son is generally a good kid. How can we make a strong point that this is not acceptable?

A.  Indeed, good children have times when they struggle to find their way, and this seems to be one of those times. Some understanding of why a 12-year-old boy might participate in this kind of bullying will help you respond.

Boosting self-esteem, overcoming self-doubt

Your son is on the cusp of the transition from boyhood to manhood and is likely filled with questions and even doubts about his ability to develop into the kind of young man he would like to be. Most emotionally healthy boys do not consciously recognize these doubts, but they are there, nagging at them and spurring them to prove themselves.

Ideally, boys find constructive paths, such as athletics or academics, to demonstrate their growing powers. But a pre-adolescent can build himself up in non-constructive activities; bullying gay or transgender peers is one way. Your son and his friends likely equate masculinity and strength with a heterosexual orientation. By mocking someone they believe to be gay, they are declaring that they are strong and masculine and clearly reject the "alternative."

This type of bullying is not an effective strategy to boost self-esteem. The mocking child does not increase his sense of confidence; rather, he remains dependent on a scapegoat to deflect his own questions about himself.

Respond with a collaborative approach

Although the specifics of this situation involve your son's and his friends' ideas about their peer's sexual orientation, the larger issue is that they used another person for their own purposes as if he were an inanimate tool rather than a fellow human.

If you punish your son, we would hope he learns more than to not degrade another person just to avoid being grounded. Instead, respond in a way that helps him see the problem and disavow his actions on the basis of his own ethics.

You may be tempted to lecture about why your child's actions were wrong. We recommend you curb this impulse. If your child has not already absorbed the values he has violated, your lecture will not overcome that problem. And it runs the dual risk of merely shaming your child and interfering with the most precious part of your relationship with him: open communication.

We suggest a collaborative approach. For this approach, you must truly believe your child is a good person who cares about other people who, for some reason, lost his way on this occasion. We recommend that you say something along those lines. Let your son know you are confident in his goodness and kindness and that you are aware he must be as disturbed about his actions as you are. If you are both disturbed, you have a true collaboration.

Be prepared for your child to be defensive, to possibly blame the other child, as a way to minimize what he did. Such defensiveness is natural because your son knows he violated family values and is ashamed.

Your son also needs to preserve his ties with his peer group, which is important at this age. Your best bet is to acknowledge some kernel of truth in what he says; perhaps that there was strong peer pressure. If your son sees that you understand there were other factors, you will be in a much better position to let him know that these factors do not change the basic fact that there is no justification for what he did, and that he knows that as well.

Help him explore his own morality

Do not expect to resolve this in one conversation; this is an opportunity for many discussions. Once your son genuinely accepts responsibility, then you and he can begin to talk together about the reasons why he violated his own sense of right and wrong.

Use this incident as an opportunity to help him question and expand his sense of right and wrong. Sometimes it is right to accept and value the differences of others. When is that the case? Differences in sexual orientation, religious choice and skin color are to be respected, even valued. Some differences call for a more searching moral analysis, such as religious traditions that limit the rights of women.

Try to use this as an opportunity to engage him in moral thinking, rather than lecturing. You are seeking genuine growth that he can use in many different moral situations. A quick pledge never to repeat this bullying, even if honored, will not be as valuable as using the opportunity for your son to learn something about himself and his obligation to others.

Growing up is hard, and very few children don't have some moments of cruelty along the way. It is difficult and painful to think about those who are the subjects of the cruelty. However, keep in mind that with your guidance, this episode can be one that will help him develop into even a kinder and more caring person than he already may be.


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