Brayden is a sweet, playful 7 year-old with an adorable mop of dirty blond hair. He cares deeply about animals, especially his family’s chickens, goats, cats, and dogs. He plays Legos and Pokemon. He likes wearing rings and bracelets and painting his nails with his mom and little sister. He loves Olaf from Frozen, the Avengers, and the Ninja Turtles. His mom describes him as tenderhearted with a gentle soul.
Here are some of the things that have been said to Brayden:
Loving cats is a girl thing. Boys should only want to kick cats.
You are gay and stupid for having nail polish.
(When his pet chicken died)It’s just a chicken, Brayden. Don’t be a girl about it.
And to his parents:
Now you’re just trying to make him gay. Men don’t wear jewelry.
Cut his hair. He looks like a girl.
Brayden’s mom and dad have done an amazing job raising him. They have taught him to have confidence in himself. But with negative messages from others around him (children and adults other than his parents), that confidence has begun to erode. He has stopped wearing his pink Olaf shirt because “pink is a girl color.” He doesn’t bring his doll to school for fear of being teased. When his mom approached Brayden’s teacher about the name-calling, the teacher brushed it off and did nothing. And most recently, Brayden doesn’t want to go to school. The first day after Spring Break, he came running through the door after school in tears and threw himself on the couch. “Today just isn’t a good day,” he said. After talking with him, his mom discovered that another child had destroyed his toy on the bus.
Teachers, if you weren’t concerned about bullying before, you should be now. It’s not just happening to Brayden. Over 30% of students report that they are frequently bullied (Catherine Bradshaw et al. 2007 School Psychology Review). Bias-based bullying, like the kind Brayden has experienced, causes even greater damage. Those harassed for race, religion, ability, perceived sexual orientation, or gender have higher rates of depression and lower grades and are more likely to skip school and have their personal belongings stolen or deliberately damaged (Stephen Russell et al. 2012 American Journal of Public Health). It is the anti-gay harassment that children fear more than any other kind of name calling (Joseph Drake et al. 2003 Journal of School Health).
Let’s look at this from an academic standpoint. Educators have the responsibility of getting students to meet standards. When kids are bullied, they don’t come to school. If they don’t attend, they can’t possibly learn. We need only go back to our college Educational Psychology course and remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; children who don’t have their needs of safety and sense of belonging met CANNOT LEARN. But the thing is, we’re not just talking about academics. We are talking about precious children. Bias-based bullying can cause emotional distress, behavioral problems, low self-esteem, and serious psychological damage. And that simply cannot stand.
We may not be able to stop ignorant comments in the general public, but we can certainly make a difference in the climate at our schools. All students deserve for their schools to be safe places. And bullying CAN be stopped. Schools that promote greater gender equity and do not tolerate sexual or gendered harassment have significantly less bullying (Dorothy Espelage et al. 2014 School Psychology Quarterly). For resources to help in this effort, visit www.welcomingschools.org.
As for Brayden, simply put, we can do better. We can give him an environment in which he is encouraged instead of stifled, protected instead of targeted, and accepted instead of belittled. We can give him a space in which to be his authentic self…the sensitive, caring boy that his family knows him to be. And you know what? That kid is going to do amazing things.