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Meredith O'Brien: Bullies and otherwise bad behavior

Meredith O'Brien

I was watching an episode of Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” -- starring Edie Falco as a tough-talking, no-nonsense nurse -- and was struck by a particular scene:

Jackie Peyton’s oldest daughter, Grace, who’s in fifth grade, was having a friend, Kaitlyn, sleep overnight. The friend took glee in harassing Jackie’s youngest daughter Fiona. She tripped Fiona so the girl fell on her face and then lied about it, called Fiona names and then outright taunted her right in front of Jackie, asking, “Do you still wear diapers?”

Additionally, Kaitlyn insulted the family’s home and disrespected Jackie. Finally, Jackie had had enough. She pulled Kaitlyn aside and said, “Kaitlyn, honey, shut the *bleep* up.” I cheered, wishing we could all be gutsy enough to reprimand someone else’s kid, though not necessarily while using profanity. (It is a Showtime program, after all.)

My home state of Massachusetts just enacted a highly publicized anti-bullying law -- I prefer the term “harassment,” which I think is a more accurate description of the behavior -- that is intended to keep students emotionally and physically safe when they’re in school.

And as I watched “Nurse Jackie,” I began to think about how much harassment and anti-social behavior goes on, unchecked, outside of school. I’m not talking about the Internet or social media; I’m talking about harassment and bad behavior that we witness but then are hesitant to reprimand someone else’s kid for, never mind inform the child’s parents about it. There’s a fear that if you do that, you’ll be socially ostracized, hollered at, or, worse, threatened with legal action by the kid’s parents.

Not too long ago, there was a boy who came to our house (he wasn’t invited ... it’s a long story). The grade-school-aged kid in question had, for much of this school year, been extremely mean to my daughter at school and frequently directed vulgar language her way. Despite that history, I didn’t think he’d harass my daughter when my husband and I were home. But at one point during the afternoon, I was informed that he was being nasty to my daughter and that she’d fled, crying, to her room.

Furious, I marched into the dining room where my sons, another boy and the harasser were standing. I’m ashamed to say I took the easy way out. “We don’t talk like that in this house,” I said sternly to the boys. “We don’t call each other names. Do you guys understand me?” As I was talking, the perpetrator slipped out of the room and into the kitchen, unwilling to listen to what I had to say.

Ticked, I wasn’t sure what to do next. Should I call his parents and ask them to come and fetch him? Drive him home and tell his parents about his behavior? Or privately vow not to let him return, given his history? My husband was all in favor of driving the kid home right then and there, but I stopped him. I don’t know why, really, although I wished I had the courage to directly tell the child that his treatment of my daughter was wrong and to inform his parents about it.

I took the cowardly “he’s not coming back here” option. I wimped out. Because I have to see this kid and his parents often at various activities, I feared problems and backlash, and was on the fence about whether the parents would actually do anything with the information anyway.

As I later reflected upon my decision, I asked myself how this was any different from teachers who turned their heads when they saw bad, harassing behavior on the playground and did nothing because it’s all too messy -- too much fallout. My conclusion: It’s no different.

You often hear teachers worry that if they discipline a student, the student’s parents will, instead of reprimanding their child, put the teacher on the defensive for calling their child’s behavior into question. There’s a fear that teachers won’t get any backup from the parents. That’s a concern I share on a parent-to-parent basis, that if I see someone’s kid acting badly and I say something, I’ll be the one placed upon the hot seat, not the kid.

A friend of mine once witnessed several children on her son’s bus standing up and jumping from one back seat to another across the aisle while the bus was moving. When the bus arrived at her stop, she climbed on board, told the kids what they were doing was dangerous and asked for their names, saying she was going to call school officials.

What did this good citizen get for her trouble? A call from the principal telling her she shouldn’t be on the bus and this: “One parent did call me because I was a stranger and asked her kid their name and their child was very upset that they may get in trouble by the principal the next day. Also she was upset I asked her child their name because I was a stranger and they shouldn't have answered me.”

If we really want children to behave better and harass one another less, I think it’s time we do more things like getting on board school buses and calling out kids, who aren’t our own, on their bad behavior, and then telling their parents.

If we support one another, hold one another’s kids accountable as we would our own, we’d all be better off. The schools can’t tackle the issue of disrespectful and bullying behavior alone. If, as they say, it takes a village to raise a child, then we who live in the village need to grow a spine.

Columnist Meredith O’Brien blogs about parenting at the Picket Fence Post (wickedlocalparents.com/picketfencepost) and about pop culture at Suburban Mom (suburbanmomnotes.blogspot.com). Follow her on Twitter: MeredithOBrien.