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Parental discussions and professional publications are rife with stories about bullying, but one aspect is almost never talked about: What if the bully is an adult?
When I saw a Little League World Series game on television recently, I thought of two stories I'd heard during this last season.
Due to his new braces, a 10-year-old boy was nervous—as I would be!—about taking a pitch to the mouth. Understandably, he chose the batting helmet with the wire mask over the face when he stepped up to take batting practice. At his first practice with the new helmet, he was mocked by his coach, who then proceeded to zip balls at his head, calling him a "pansy."
The same week, another coach in our area went into competitive overdrive, screaming at his young ballplayers and berating them. "Be athletic, not pathetic!" he hollered, and, "You have to know the damn pitch count!" "Stop crying and get control of your emotions! You're 12!!" He continued browbeating kids for throwing to the wrong base, dropping a ball or hanging their heads. He even told his daughter he wasn't going to coach her next year if she continued to get upset when he yelled at her.
Other adults were nearby during both sets of events and, in the first case, did nothing. They just watched and let it happen. In the second story, a dad in the stands stepped in and respectfully confronted the coach, and then he and his wife followed up with the coach later. The "do-nothing" and the "do-something" contrast in these moments initiated a series of conversations with other parents and professionals I know about how parents should respond when they witness an adult bullying a child.
Here are some suggestions I've been thinking about:
Model Supportive Behavior
Creating a bully-free environment starts with you. In the heat of a game, do you ever scream out comments that stoke an oppressive, hyper-competitive atmosphere—comments that might encourage a likely bully? Keep it positive and remember that the brain is always making associations. If someone yelled at you each time you stepped to the plate, or made audibly disappointed gasps when you missed a ball, would you want to keep playing?
Let the Coach Feel Your Support Early
If you do have to intercede during a bullying situation, you start out a step ahead if the coach has felt your support from the beginning of the season. When we've connected with people and begun to build relationships with them, they trust us more when we need to suggest that they make a change.
A bullying coach is a rocket revving up on the launch pad. If you hope to walk back that launch, try to avoid putting him on the defensive—and give him an out if possible. The only win you're after here is the one for the kid. So you might say, "Coach, Katie's grandparents are here today. Isn't that great?" This may be enough to get his attention without having to directly ask him to watch what he's saying. This is an art. If we're abrasive, we'll only fuel the fire and increase the coach's aggression.
This can often de-escalate the situation. Say something like, "Things have gotten pretty amped up. Can I help?" Or you can even take the empathy angle, which can often soften the bully, saying something along the lines of, "This is frustrating, isn't it? How can I help?"
Calling out the bully in front of others will usually only escalate things, since the adult is probably not fully in control anyway if acting in such a manner. Ask to speak privately—or even slip him a note, saying something like, "Seems like emotions are getting a little intense," just to give him some awareness.
Set up a Time to Talk Later
I tell parents that in order to teach our children, we have to wait for the teachable moment, which is almost never when emotions are running high. Timing is everything. Talk to the coach about your concerns at a time when he has some perspective and will be more likely to listen and make a change.
Confer with the other parents. Chances are they share your concern—and your reluctance to intervene on your own. But there is strength in numbers. Not only will a group approach be more convincing to the coach, but it also permits a gentler intervention: "We'd like to see a more positive, affirming environment surrounding the team. How can we help you accomplish that?"
Enlist a Higher Power
Unfortunately, some unreasonable people cannot be reasoned with. That's the time to take it out of your hands—and theirs—by going above them. Inform the supervisor or governing body of the harmful words or actions. Again, it's helpful to bring other parents along. Make sure that next season's kids won't have to face such treatment. If you let it slide, it will just keep happening year after year.
Stand up for the Victim—Now!
Sometimes you don't have the leisure of waiting for a teachable moment. An adult bully's actions may render nice notes and confidential conversations moot. And especially if a child is endangered—I'm thinking of the first time the coach whistled a fastball by the 10-year-old's chin and called out, "Pansy!"—you may have to go superhero. Get your body between the bully and the child, gently guiding the latter away from the situation.
I love youth sports, and the vast majority of coaches are kind, supportive adults who really care about the kids they work with. But we all know that there are still too many exceptions to that rule. Too often we see adults bullying children, and too rarely do adults stand up and do anything about it. When we don't, we communicate to the children that the bully's behavior is OK and that they are on their own. We want to model bravery and doing what is right, even when it's hard, and even when we feel uncomfortable. We want to communicate to children that they deserve to be treated with respect.