I took my son to the public pool last week. We had a wonderful time and learned a lesson to last a lifetime. He was standing in line at the diving board as I was watching from a few feet away. I noticed that he was talking with a slightly older boy and it appeared the conversation was becoming quite animated. I resisted my desire to intervene and waited to see what would happen. After a few more moments my son turned to me and said, “dad he says that I cannot wear a swim shirt on the diving board.” In uncharacteristic fashion I quickly shot back my response, “it doesn’t matter what he says, it matters what the lifeguard says!” Just at that moment a lifeguard walked by and I boldly asked, “Is it ok if he wears a swim shirt on the diving board?” The lifeguard said, “yes!” and walked on without giving it a second thought. The boys accepted the lifeguard’s answer and continued practicing their cannon balls.
As I reflected on this very brief interaction I began to wonder what it was about this lifeguard (a teenager) that caused the boys to move on so quickly from their disagreement. Was it his confidence or age? Maybe it was his gender or personality? I don’t think so! I think they accepted his answer because he was viewed as an expert on this topic. He knows this pool, he is there everyday, he is in charge of safety, and it is his responsibility to enforce the posted rules.
The boys knew that this person’s opinion was important. It did not matter what anyone else had to say on the subject. This guy in the red swim trunks and way too dark tan was the final authority.
I am afraid that the art of discerning whose opinion matters has been stripped away from our school age children. I wonder if in our rush to teach tolerance and acceptance we have inadvertently made our children targets for loud-mouthed bullies?
The Cambridge online dictionary defines tolerance as “willingness to accept behavior and beliefs that are different from your own, even if you disagree with or disapprove of them.” It also lists acceptance as a synonym for tolerance.
Please do not get me wrong, I strongly believe in the inherent value of all people. Each person is wonderfully valuable and deserves to be treated with the utmost respect. I do suggest however that not all opinions or beliefs are of equal value. The opinion of the young boy trying to tell my son what he could and could not wear was of very little value. He was wrong, misguided, and unreliable. This is not to say that the boy himself was of little value just his opinion.
What does this have to do with bullying? Well in my experience as a school counselor and therapist I find that those children that are most susceptible to verbal and emotional bullying are those who accept all opinions equally. Somehow they have learned to accept all opinions and beliefs as truth no matter the source. Unfortunately, many times this includes all opinions and beliefs that others have about them. So, It appears that they accept the opinion of the kid who calls them stupid, weak, or ugly as equally valid to the adult who refers to them as kind, intelligent, or strong. This in my opinion is a horrible mistake and we as parents make an even bigger mistake when we teach our kids that all opinions and beliefs are to be equally accepted.
Simply, it is not true. My opinion regarding politics for instance is of significantly less value than that of the President of the United States. It does not mean that I cannot express my opinion loudly and vehemently, but loud and passionate does not make true and accurate. In the same way a fellow classmates opinion about my child’s level of strength, intelligence, or athletic ability is of much less value than my child’s opinions about himself.
I am regularly asked to referee disagreements about the value of playground opinions. I have come up with a standard response that I find pretty effective. When Jimmy runs up to me and says, “Mr. Vander Ley Billy called me a douche bag!” (or some other derogatory name) Jimmy expects that I will get upset with Billy. He anticipates consequences and passionate pleas for Billy to be kind and friendly. I take Jimmy off guard however, when I ask a simple and pointed question. “Are you a douche bag Jimmy?” “Uh, no” Is the usual response. “Good, I didn’t think you were, it doesn’t matter what Billy says.” Off they run to complete their game of girls chase boys (if it hasn’t been banned at their school)
Rather than teaching our children to value all opinions and beliefs equally let’s teach them to discern opinions and beliefs based on sources. Who are the experts in the field? Who has put in the time to know this topic? Who is safe and who is reliable? If we teach our children to be discerning about truth I think they will come to realize that they are the experts in the field of me. Their parents and trusted teachers hold reliable information about who they are and what they are good at. The verbally aggressive playground bully does not know them and is not a trusted source of information. More importantly this playground bully’s opinion does not create truth regarding their person. The truth about a child is based in their inherent personal value. They can sense this value from loving adults who are passionately engaged in the wonder of becoming an expert in the field of them. Go now you passionate parents and uncover the infinite mystery that is your child!