Modern times: The hard-knock life

I'm with Reese Witherspoon (just a little): Bring on the bullies

Reese: “I Want My Kids Teased and Bullied!”

The headline, which ran on a New York gossip site earlier this year, is a provocation, another celebrity outburst so outrageous that it can’t possibly be true. What kind of mother wants her kids to be bullied, their self-esteem shredded? Well, I finally have something in common with Reese Witherspoon besides bangs: I think I might be a little pro-bullying, too. Just a little bullying, just a little pro.

Here’s what Witherspoon actually said in the interview with Good Morning America: “I don’t want my children to miss out on any of that teasing and bullying. It kind of makes you who you are, when you don’t make it onto the soccer team. I remember the two weeks of crying because I didn’t make the volleyball team. It made me interesting.”

What she’s talking about is vastly different from the kind of repetitive, torturous bullying that has played a part in the deaths of children and teens across the country. Nothing can, or should, diminish the horror of the kind of extreme bullying – online and in the flesh – that led a gay Grade 9 student named Shaquille Wisdom to kill himself in Ajax, Ont., last fall.

But somewhere on the playground between sugar-and-spice and evil is the kind of quotidian meanness that our kids will face forever. Trying to protect them from every slight, every taunt, is an act of hubris, but it’s not surprising that parents try: Emotional safety is the next frontier now that we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking we’ve conquered physical safety. Parents put plastic over every sharp edge, install nanny cams in daycares and play on-call chauffeur in an exhausting sprint to remove all risk and quell all panic.

But emotional safety is harder to guarantee. When my four-year-old came home from school telling me about a boy who wouldn’t play with him, I didn’t see any signs of damage – he reported the event in a neutral way – but then he said, “Bullies are bad.” My son is a quick study, and he’d absorbed the language of victimization along with everything else: Egyptians were buried in tombs; the sea is salty; bullies are out to get me.

I called the teacher the next day, asking if I should be concerned. With extreme patience, she assured me there was no bullying going on and that the school had “zero tolerance” for it. I sensed that she gets a lot of these calls. In Toronto, where I live, the school board released a new bullying prevention and intervention policy in January and recently set up a hotline where kids can report a number of school abuses, including bullying. I admire the intent of these initiatives, but my recollection of childhood cruelty is that bullies are like cockroaches: adaptable. If they want to call your son a loser, they will.

But is all aggression equal? Recently, a Toronto parent complained that her son was suspended from school for throwing a snowball at another student: an act of bullying. Later, after the horrific murder of 15-year-old Jordan Manners, shot in the hallway of his Toronto public high school, the school board released a panel investigation into school safety. The report stated that serious incidents of physical violence too often went unreported by students and teachers across the city. Why is our focus so off?

In his new book, Sissy Nation, the journalist John Strausbaugh argues that Americans are too soft, a nation of coddled and somnambulant citizens with no ability to think for themselves. Sissy, he has said, isn’t about being gay or feminine: “It has to do with your brains and your commitment and your conviction and your ability to stand up as an individual” – or lack thereof.

I don’t love Strausbaugh’s thesis – America seems pathologically un-sissyish in its testosterone-fuelled foreign policy these days – but it strikes me as germane to how we raise our kids. When parents protect their children too intensely, we rob them of agency. A child who learns how to handle a bully is armed for life, but when an authority figure steps in, the kid learns only that he will always be saved. Figuring out how to navigate cruelty doesn’t merely build character, it also rouses one to empathize with those who cannot, will not, be rescued.

Parents call teachers and hover outside the playground gates not only because they care, but because experts tell them to get in there. For years, the dominant parenting philosophy has asserted that self-esteem is the most important attribute to instill in a kid, and to get it requires constant intervention: rewards, praising, more praising, rewards. The result, writes the parenting expert Barbara Coloroso, one of the most sensible voices in the mix, is a generation of “praise junkies.” These kids are given scratch-and-sniff stickers at the first successful potty moment, then good-grade bonuses throughout school, until they arrive in the world with a shrug asking, “What’s in it for me?”

Witherspoon, that truth teller, also said, “It drives me crazy when everyone wins the award.” Today’s parents would probably call the volleyball coach and advocate on behalf of poor, sad Reese, no matter how lousy her spike. But in fact, her self-esteem probably improved for not getting on that team. She learned that she could handle rejection and succeed at a few other things with her life, like, say, acting. The fact is, not everyone deserves a slot on the volleyball team. Our kids are precious, but mostly only to us. If they approach the world assuming the same soft landing they’ve had at home all their lives, they will only fall harder.

China has recently admitted to significant labour shortages in a few key manufacturing areas. A generation of “little emperors” reared since the instigation of China’s one-child policy has given way to a population of adults who feel above this station, unwilling to do the factory jobs their parents did.

Of course young people have every right to strive for better, but then what? Many of this type of Chinese youth (mostly male) are invested in their own personal success – after all, they’re the centre of the universe – but how do they feel, I wonder, about those around them? How are their powers of empathy? It’s a question worth asking of kids in our own backyard, too, one that may be suffering from too much self-esteem – of overestimating their worth and accomplishments.

Of course, I don’t want my kids to feel pain, to be teased or hurt. But if they don’t sometimes confront the depths of another person’s cruelty, then they will have nothing against which to measure their own humanity. By butting out, we give them that gift.