by Larry Mathys
[part 1 of a 2-part series on bullying]
Thinking that it was nothing more than a 10 year-old being overdramatic about her upcoming school day, my brother and his wife decided that it was best to stay calm, and find out why she would say such a thing. I’m sure any parent will understand that a statement such as this cannot be easily dismissed. It took a few minutes of prying, but they finally got her to tell them what was troubling her so much.
Frustrated and angry, she told them, “There’s a group of boys that makes fun of me because I’m not a Christian.” She paused, and said, “They told me I was going to hell.”
Doesn’t this type of pitiless behavior seem rather abnormal for children of this age group? Pointing a condescending finger at another person and proclaiming that they are going to hell, in fourth grade, cannot be anything but learned behavior. I see no other way to explain how boys this age acted out with such fervent, religious conviction against another child. They had to have some type of coaching from adults.
Furthermore, I would submit that these boys’ actions provide a clear psychological window into their developmental surroundings. Seriously, nobody in their right mind would say that kids are born with the idea of an afterlife, much less an afterlife filled with eternal torture and suffering. And the heartbreaking point here is this: these boys were purposefully and maliciously taught by adults to treat kids of other religions, or no religion, with hatred and cruelty.
I’m sure you can imagine how difficult it was for my brother and his wife to endure listening to their beautiful baby girl struggle with the toll of psychological bullying in the name of a particular religion. Watching your child endure this type of pain would make any parent completely nauseated. I know I was.
The most troubling part of this whole situation is that more than likely, this group of boys knows nothing more than simplistic anecdotes of their parent’s religion. Yet at a mere 9 and 10 years-old, they are already boldly segregating themselves and hoisting each other up as superior to others. Of course, I cannot say with certainty where these boys learned this contemptuous behavior, but judging by the opinions I have read about public school systems from religious fundamentalists, I have a very, very strong hunch where it’s coming from.
But this topic is not meant to point fingers at their parents or at their church, because I don’t think fussing about religiously aggressive kids is very productive and it does nothing to address the problem at hand. Griping also feels a touch passive aggressive, and that bothers me since I don’t want to set that kind of example for my children.
Instead, what I’d like to do is explore a few situations encountered by my family and myself, and then accompany these with a set of suggestions for the secular and non-religious families that may have children going to school with religious bullies.
We’ll explore situations of
- verbal bullying (or confrontational bullying),
- indirect bullying (lying, starting rumors), and
- psychological bullying (playing on fears or other emotional states, and intimidation.)
Just to be clear, these topics will not cover extreme situations like those of Jessica Alquist or David Fowler. These two teens showed exceptional courage in the face of real threats of violence. The extent of this bullying far exceeds the scope of my experience. However, if you or a family member is in this type of situation, let the professionals help you. Don’t hesitate; grab your phone and immediately call the police, then call the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Threats of violence to you or to a family member, threats of rape, and threats of murder should not be taken lightly, and the FFRF has lawyers ready to assist you at a moment’s notice.
* * * * *
On a typical afternoon in my son’s after school program, one of his friends mentioned that he wanted to play a game that he learned at church. His friend explained that in order to win, the children had to pretend to become angels. Confused, my son looked at his friend and said the worst thing he could have to a child who was raised in religion.
“Angels aren’t real,” he said.
Well, you can imagine what happened next. His friends immediately began a frenzied debate with him over the existence of various tufted, biblical ethereal guardians. Now, if you’ve ever seen second graders in a, “Nuh uh,” and “Yuh huh,” verbal tug of war, you’ll know that these things tend to escalate rather quickly. School teachers know this as well, and in the blink of an eye he and his friends found themselves being escorted to the school’s office. It was here they sat, quietly waiting for their parents to arrive. Since my son had been in this predicament several times before, I’m quite sure he thought his entire world was on the verge of collapse.
I entered the office, where I saw my poor son huddled in the corner with his head buried in folded arms, the felon awaiting his fate. The first thing that went through my mind was, “What has he done this time?” But then he looked up at me and my heart sank. The weight of his expression seemed so heavy that it was as if holding up his own chin was impossible. I thought, “When is he going to catch a break?”
Then one of the after school teachers approached me with the puffy eyes and blotchy red cheeks of a person who had recently been crying. “Great,” I thought, “this is going to be bad.”
“Mr. Mathys,” she said, “your son and a couple of his friends got into a very serious argument during a game they were playing in the gym. We had to bring them to the office to separate them.”
“Okay,” I said, understanding that the best thing to do in these situations is to give everyone a chance to cool off. I asked, “Did he hit anyone else or something like that?”
“No,” she answered. “But…,” she said, her voice trailing off. The tears once again began to flow.
“What in the world did he do?” I asked, frustrated.
At this point she was weeping as if her cat had been run over by a bus. “He told his friends that angels aren’t real. Then they started yelling at one another,” she said, her voice crackling. “One of his friends told me that they started yelling at him because he said that God isn’t real either.”
I won’t bore you with the details of our entire exchange, but suffice it to say that my emotions swung immediately toward protecting the opinions held by my son. There was so much heartache, so much anguish, and so much emotion spilling out of this woman; all over the angry arguments of a seven year-old child. By the end, I came to the conclusion that no amount of reason could penetrate the religious corner of her mind fortified by her faith and convictions. In her mind, she saw my son as a lost boy doomed to burn for eternity.
I present this situation because I believe it is a unique circumstance of a child being bullied with religion using two different methods. The first is obvious: direct confrontation between classmates where a larger group of kids converges on an individual. My thanks goes out to the after school teachers for their approach to this type of bullying; my wife and I both were very pleased with how they handled the escalating argument.
This brings us to the second type of bullying that’s not nearly as obvious: psychological bullying. Whether his teacher realized it or not, the repetitive tears and emotional outbursts made my son feel as if he had done something wrong. She put him into a situation where he had to sit in an invisible cage and watch her weep over what he had said. He knew it was wrong to make another person cry, so of course he blamed himself for disappointing her. Not to mention his maturity level was nowhere near ready to deal with this kind of emotional pressure. Furthermore, a child should be able to say something as innocuous as, “There are no such things as angels,” or, “I don’t believe in god,” without his world crumbling from beneath him. I wonder: would she have reacted the same way had my son argued with his counterparts that there was no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny?
This is a perfect example how adults can so easily manipulate the mind of a child. That constant display of grief, while he sat alone in a corner, was putting direct psychological pressure on my seven year-old son. She was quietly and cruelly manipulating him into believing that what he said was far worse than any of the other boys. Quite simply, it was an adult bullying a child.
So, after digesting and analyzing this scenario, I suppose my final question is this: Could I have prepared myself to be able to handle his teacher any differently?
I suppose my initial response to that question is… of course! I have always thought that I can (and should) always learn something from my experiences. Sure, this philosophy sometimes makes me second-guess my initial reactions to people, and fret a bit when I feel like I lectured another person. But when an uncomfortable confrontation arises where I got frustrated with another person, it’s sensible for me to conclude that I probably could have been more prepared for this situation.
For example, when I saw his teacher crying, I was completely caught off guard with how deeply the words of a seven year-old would affect an adult. I would never have dreamed that this could have caused her that much anguish. Perhaps I should have. If I was better prepared, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have reacted with such barefaced frustration.
In hindsight, a far better solution to this confrontation would have been to politely remind her that there are kids of all faiths in this elementary school, including those with no faith. I’m sure she would agree that each and every child deserves the same love and respect that they would grant to a child of Christian parents.
Even though I do not blame my son or the other two boys that were involved in this incident, I do approach this as an opportunity to learn from my actions. By analyzing my mistakes, I’m hoping that someone else might be better prepared if a similar situation arises with his or her child. Thus, if you are a couple with young schoolchildren, I strongly suggest you prepare yourself for the inevitable confrontation. Children hear, and process, far more than most people would ever imagine. In time, the topics that you discuss with your spouse or significant other will most assuredly dance across the lips of your child. And boy, did mine come far, far earlier than I would have ever guessed.