Just get me through 7th grade

iStock_000001593036XSmallMiddle school is a tough time in a young man’s life.

Recently, a popular television show on the Disney Channel, Good Luck Charlie, captured the middle school experience perfectly. In the episode Bob Duncan (played by Eric Allan Kramer), the family patriarch, is trying to tell his 14-year-old son that it doesn’t matter what other people think. Gabe Duncan (played by Bradley Steven Perry) replies, “I’m in middle school, that’s all we do in middle school!”

If you can survive your 13th and 14th years you will likely be able to handle anything like throws at you afterwards (Dobson 42). I think I can attest to that statement – my seventh and eighth grade years were pretty tough. In fact, I spent most of seventh-grade either fighting, running from flights, avoiding certain hallways or other kids and just generally being scared to death even to go to school. Granted, my seventh grade year was at Golden Junior High school which was just a precursor to the MMA and life got better when my folks moved us and I did my last two years at Drake Junior in Arvada, Colorado (in the last 70s and early 80s we had junior-high’s, not middle schools, so it was 7-9th grades). But at Golden Jr., fights were common nearly every day, as was drug usage, and criminal behavior, and that was just the faculty. In our curriculum, reading, writing and arithmetic were replaced by assault, harassment and intimidation. Bullying wasn’t just a fact of life, it was the way of the school. I’m pretty sure our school motto was “The Way of the Fist,” and our Mascot was a Janbiya-weilding Klingon.

But why do boys harass and intimidate each other? The reason we do virtually anything is because we are rewarded in some way for it – the impact of intimidation is to drag other children down to bully’s same level of powerlessness through fear; children that live in fear are able to learn (Dobson 43). The bully is rewarded by reducing his victim down to his own dysfunctional level and a study by the Journal of Developmental Psychology revealed that those who taunted their younger peers and were aggressive and rebellious at school, were most often the most popular with their classmates; in other words society has been rewarding the boys for bullying. In fact, I learned that if I could push around another kid, I gained respect in the “yard,” and was thus hassled less. However, I have this other side which would then feel sorry for the kid so I’d try to make amends – which resulted in getting my ass kicked and yard status to once again go down.

I often wondered if I should have fought more times than I did – if that would have actually reduced the amount of harassment and bullying I was receiving. But later in life I would meet another survivor of Golden Junior who told me that he never backed down from a fight while he was there, but then he also said that he was fighting nearly every day. There is always a bigger fish. It was very common that if you won a fight then the next day you would be fighting your victims’ older brother or older friend in eighth or ninth grade. And it was not uncommon for someone to show from Golden High School to help out. The faculty was largely useless and I frequently saw them turn another way. Even when they did intervene they were not there when the buses dumped us off in our neighborhoods later.

All of this was three decades before the shootings at Columbine High School. We really did not have guns in my school but knives were prevalent and I was threatened with them more than once. Had I had a gun would I have become a Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris? I don’t think so. Because I had one thing that has been shown to help students get through the bullying years – I had a support group. Yes, it truly does get better. At the time it was pretty much just my parents and a few friends in the neighborhood who went to different schools. Later, after I change schools I have a much larger peer group and it was my friends and family got me through the tough times.

How did we go from a society where American boys routinely and expectantly brought guns to the classroom and then left them in the cloak room until the afternoon when they retrieved them to go hunting, to arming themselves with automatic weapons, building propane bombs and gunning down their peers?

The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry all place blame on the effect of prolong viewing of violence in the media, which can lead to emotional desensitization later in life (Dobson 47). Dobson also mentions violence in movies from Die Hard, Rambo, and Commando and even Disney’s Scream series of films, which not only depict violence but promote violence as a way to solve problems.

The American Academy of Pediatrics have also warned that TV viewing by children and lead to violent behavior, obesity, apathy, lower metabolism, decreased imagination and bowel disorders (Dobson 47-48). I’ll also, in this same sentence, say that I’m apparently a product of all this as well as I grew up playing violent video games (considered so at the time) and watching Die Hard, Rambo and Commando and the list goes on – I still enjoy a good action movie such as Jack Reacher or Oblivion and particularly Act of Valor. But, despite all my being bullied, why didn’t I go over the edge like kids do today?

There are several things that parents can do to help boys manage this difficult time:

  • Adults, particularly teachers when they see it, must come to the aid of a student in trouble (Dobson 48). Although the bullied kid may be caught again later by the bully, intervention by a teacher at least demonstrates to the kid that he isn’t alone. Whenever I saw a teacher intentionally turn the other way, I felt like I was truly alone and abandoned, that no one would come to my aid. Maybe that’s why I tried to never turn my back when I saw another kid getting bullied – I just wanted to let him know that he wasn’t alone. While I usually got  another ass kicking for my trouble, I also usually gained another friend in the process – would have been nice if the friend was a black belt but I digress. When teachers intervene it tells the other students that are also safe and protected (Dobson 48).
  • Never make a child feel that you believe he is destined for failure or rejection. He will believe you. He will become the demoralized and his will to overcome adversity will weaken (Dobson 49).
  • Watch for signs of threatened suicide, particularly when a child who has threatened to kill himself suddenly seems to be carefree and happy, which sometimes means he has decided to go through with the threat, and is no longer struggling with what has been bothering him (Dobson 49).

In younger kids watch for signs of sleep disturbance, stomach complaints, open anger, hostility and rage. Be available to listen without judging or belittling their feelings. Simply being heard can go along way towards relieving a child’s depressed mood – then you need to look for the root cause that is behind the distress. What is happening at your child’s school may be the answer (Dobson 49).

I think overall we are becoming more desensitized to violence as a society and violence is often a form of entertainment. But not everybody who watches violence, or plays violent videogames becomes a violent person. I think as a parent it is about limiting exposure and talking to your kids. It is also about leading by example. I know in my case my kids see violent acts on TV but they did not start to act in an aggressive manner until they really started paying attention to how their dad drove the car. I realized several years ago that I was teaching my kids more how to behave more than any TV show they were watching. We must always remember, we are growing young boys to become men. In one day I realized I could never live with myself if one of my kids was hurt or killed in their own road rage incident because of negative behavior they learned from me. That is why in January 2009 I stopped having road rage altogether. I encourage you to do the same and I be happy to share with you my strategy if you want to ask.

Our kids pay far more attention to the things we do, than what they are watching on TV.

“Don’t ask [our boys] to be men when they’re just little boys, but show them how to be real men by demonstrating the thing we as a society seem to have lost: self-control. It’s the greatest gift, and it isn’t even rocket scientist. It’s just good parenting,” James Dobson, (50).

Dobson, James C. Bringing up Boys. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001. Print.

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