Our Greatest Defense Against Bullying
For National Bullying Awareness Month, by KelliAnn Mead
Originally posted October 31, 2013.
Since the birth of my youngest son, I have discovered that bullying does not discriminate. Anyone can bully or be bullied. By definition, bullying is “the use of force or coercion to abuse or intimidate others. The behavior can be habitual and involve an imbalance of social or physical power.” A bully isn’t just a larger child who corners somebody on the playground to get candy. A bully can stare at another person a little too long. A bully can be someone who speaks insensitively. A bully may not even realize the impact of his or her actions.
My son Carter is a multiple amputee with all four limbs affected by severe birth defects. Early on, I became aware of how people treated us in public. I remember bringing him to the mall when he was eight months old. He had just been fit with his first prosthetic leg by Next Step Orthotics & Prosthetics, Inc. in Manchester, New Hampshire. While letting him crawl in the play area, I saw children gathering around him, looking at his little arm and his prosthesis. Some parents came and took their kids away. Most didn’t notice their child was curious about Carter. Before I knew it, I found myself sitting on the floor surrounded by ten toddlers educating them about my son and about his prosthesis. The children were very receptive and had a lot of questions. I was instinctively advocating for my son.
One mother decided to get involved, and she listened for a minute before lifting Carter’s shirt to ask, “What else is wrong with him?” I was horrified, absolutely horrified. As I was teaching how we should treat others, she came over and violated my son’s privacy. Our children learn by watching our actions and hearing our words. If we call a little boy “retarded,” they will repeat it. If we do not answer questions about why a little girl uses a walker, we are instructing them not to talk about why someone is different. Helping our children grow up to be kind and respectful starts at a young age. Our kids become comfortable and acceptant of people with disabilities when we are candid with them.
Today, Carter is six years old, and I have encountered many other situations in which he was bullied. He was once physically assaulted by an older boy who tried to pull his prosthetic arm and leg off because they were “weird” and “gross.” Yet when approached by an inquisitive child, Carter openly tells them, “I was born this way.” He will even speak up when a parent hushes their son or daughter: “It’s ok. I’m used to questions. I get them all the time.”
As a family, we never hide Carter’s differences. Both of our sons have proven how much this has contributed to their confidence. Carter’s older brother Chase learned how to stick up for him while at a McDonald’s play area. A group of boys called Carter a “monster baby” and ran away from him screaming. Chase marched up to them and said, “My baby brother is not a monster baby. He is a nice baby, and just because he is missing parts, it does not make him a monster. You should be nicer to my brother. He is a good baby.” Then he walked away.
When we as parents are open with our children about having compassion, they are more apt to treat those with disabilities like everyone else. We should not rely on school anti-bullying programs alone but rather use them to reinforce what we teach our children at home. With the start of each school year, I visit Carter’s class to discuss appropriate ways to ask about disabilities, which words to avoid when describing a person who is different, and why even facial expressions or stares can hurt someone. I encourage them to go home and share what they learned, and many parents have thanked me for taking the time to talk with the class about disabilities. Now I see the same kids supporting Carter and glowing with pride. They tell me they think Carter is the coolest kid in their school, and I’ve had a child tell me that she watches out for Carter on the playground to make sure he is not being bullied.
Our schools have great anti-bullying programs, but they don’t focus on information about kids with disabilities and how bullying affects them. People with disabilities are more likely to be bullied because they are different. Believe it or not, some kids do not even know what “disabled” means and often the equipment used by the disabled can seem scary to them. The more we instruct our children on these topics, the more comfortable they will feel about who they are and about their peers.
In her handbook ‘The Bullying Epidemic-the guide to arm you for the fight,’ Kathleen Patel says, “With ignorance comes fear – from fear comes bigotry. Education is the key to acceptance.” Education not only helps prevent bullying, but it also empowers our children to advocate for themselves and for others.
KelliAnn Mead lives in Manchester, New Hampshire with her husband Mike and their sons Chase and Carter. Carter is a client of Next Step Bionics & Prosthetics, Inc.