Today is the International Day of Pink. It’s a day to work towards ending homophobia, transphobia and all forms of bullying and harassment in our schools and everywhere.
As I got my four year old daughter dressed in head to toe pink today we talked about what this day means. We discussed the importance of kindness, of asking others to join in, about helping those who may be left alone or excluded. We reflected on how people should be supported to love who they want to love, without being afraid. We talked about being brave and standing up to mean people.
And we also talked about remembering to choose friends who are kind, caring and who treat you well. We talked about what friendship is and what it isn’t and how friends ought to treat one another.
Years ago, when I was a classroom teacher I had a colleague with a son in daycare. She was complaining about her daycare’s request that he wear pink on the International Day of Pink. “This is so silly,” she said. “There’s no bullying in daycare.”
A nice thought, but untrue. The truth is, relational aggression starts young, emerging at the preschool stage.
When my daughter was in daycare, she developed a relationship with a girl who regularly manipulated her and took pleasure in her distress. One moment they were friends, the next my daughter was being frozen out.
On one occasion this girl convinced my daughter that her father didn’t love her. “He told me that!” she claimed. When my husband arrived to pick up my daughter, the girl continued her taunting in front of him, laughing as my daughter wept in confusion. “He said he doesn’t love you. I heard him.” Eventually, at home, we were able to console our daughter and explain that some people choose to lie sometimes and choose to be mean. We don’t know why, but they do.
At that point I stepped in and spoke to her teachers. They supported me and created distance between the two girls. But my daughter continued to be pulled to this girl like a moth to a flame. At night she would cry in my arms and say “I have to show her how to be kind.”
No, I said. You don’t. That is not your job. If someone is mean or unkind to you over and over, you need to stop being friends with that person. They need to understand that friendship is a very special thing. You have to treat it with care.
Although the impulse to sympathize with bullies comes from a compassionate place, it sends the wrong message to those being victimized. When we teach children that they have to forgive continuously, that saying sorry is enough, that everyone is good deep down, that the bully is suffering too (all things that may or may not be true) then we imprint a pattern that can keep them from learning how to set boundaries and expect respect.
I want my daughter to grow up knowing her worth and knowing it not her job to save abusive people from themselves. The bully in her life this time was a young child, who with the right guidance from parents and educators will hopefully outgrow her mean girl behaviours.
But if I teach her now that she needs to tolerate that treatment, she will continue that pattern in future friendships and romantic relationships. She needs to learn now that it’s ok, critical in fact, to walk away from mean people. Anyone who fails to treat you with respect does not deserve to be in your life.
Can bullies change? Sure, maybe. I hope so. But it’s not the victimized child’s job to help them do it. Instead of downplaying harmful behaviours and making excuses for people who treat others badly, adults should step in to try to correct the behaviour, while making sure to validate those affected by affirming that no one is allowed to treat them this way.
With this approach, maybe we can wrest some of the power away from bullies, and work towards a safer, kinder world for our children and ourselves.
Please share your own thoughts on the International Day of Pink in the comments below.