Not long after the telephone was invented, I assume, a call was placed. The caller was a parent saying, "Your child is bullying my child, and I want it stopped!" The bully's parent replied, "You must have the wrong number. My child is a little angel."
A trillion phone calls later, the conversation is the same. When children are teased or tyrannized, the parental impulse is to grab the phone and rant. But these days, as studies show bullying on the rise and parental supervision on the decline, researchers who study bullying say that calling moms and dads is more futile than ever. Such calls often lead to playground recriminations and don't really teach our kids any lessons about how to navigate the world and resolve conflicts.
Still, many of us can't resist. "My fantasy is to pick on parents the same way their kids have picked on my daughter," says Dandi Daley Mackall of Cinnamon Lake, Ohio, whose daughter, 18, has been teased about her speech impairments. Mackall has called parents but found them defensive or in denial.
When you call parents, you want them to "extract the cruelty" from their bullying children, says Laura Kavesh, a child psychologist in Evanston, Ill. "But many parents are blown away by the idea of their child being cruel. They won't believe it." In a recent police-department survey in Oak Harbor, Wash., 89% of local high school students said they had engaged in bullying behavior. Yet only 18% of parents thought their children would act as bullies.
In a new national PTA survey, 25% of parents support contacting other parents to deal with bullying. But many educators warn that those conversations can be misinterpreted, causing tempers to flare. Instead, they say, parents should get objective outsiders, like principals, to mediate.
Meanwhile, if you get a call from a parent who is angry about your child's bullying, listen without getting defensive. That's what Laura McHugh of Castro Valley, Calif., did when a caller told her that her then 13-year-old son had spit in another boy's food. Her son had confessed, but the victim's mom "wanted to make sure my son hadn't given her son a nasty disease," says McHugh, who apologized and promised to get her son tested for AIDS and other diseases. She knew the chance of contracting any disease this way was remote, but her promise calmed the mother and showed McHugh's son that his bad behavior was being taken very seriously. McHugh, founder of Parents Coach Kids, a group that teaches parenting skills, sent the mom the test results. All were negative.
If you feel you must call a parent, there are strategies. Keep in mind that parents view criticism of their kids as criticism of their parenting. Rather than call their child "your little monster," say, "I'm worried about the relationship between our kids." And be open-minded. Recess can sometimes be 20 minutes of whispering, mimicking, sneering. Who started what? Perhaps your child is less innocent than he contends.
Remember: Once you make a call, you might not like what you hear. If you have an itchy dialing finger, resist temptation. Put it in your pocket.