October is National Bullying Prevention Month. The theme of last week's Connections e-newsletter was "Correct Disrespect." This week our focus is Discover Differences.
Most consider uniqueness a gift.
"You are unique- you are special!"
"You are the only you there is on the whole entire planet!"
And yet it can be uniqueness that is a risk factor of those who are bullied. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, generally children who are bullied have one or more of the following risk factors:
Are perceived as different from their peers, such as being overweight or underweight, wearing glasses or different clothing, being new to a school, or being unable to afford what kids consider "cool".
Are perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves.
Are depressed, anxious, or have low self-esteem.
Are less popular than others and have few friends.
Do not get along well with others, seen as annoying or provoking, or antagonize others for attention.
The researchers go on to add, "however, even if a child has these risk factors, it doesn't mean that they will be bullied."
Children who are "different" can be teased and ridiculed, mocked and excluded.
In building an environment where respect is expected, and disrespect is corrected, a next step is to discover differences as a way to make the group stronger, growing a greater sense of connection.
Two key words often used for promoting this idea are: tolerance or acceptance. These words both begin with acknowledging someone's differences, but seem to only go as far as "putting up with" those differences. We believe it should go even further than that, to appreciate and celebrate. Seeing our differences not as ways to just put up with each other, but as ways to share and grow and bring out the best in each other together. Discover how differences make us better.
Most of us, especially today's modern young people, agree that full-color television and movies are much better than the old black-and-white. More colors- more differences- make today's films better. Or consider a band of Star Wars Stormtroopers: They are all exactly the same. And if a few of them get shot down, it's no big deal, because there are many more of the same.
But take a look at a group of people. Their uniqueness makes them brighter and stronger- and each one matters. And these uniquenesses go beyond appearance, to each of our unique abilities. If we all only knew how to do one thing, we wouldn't get much accomplished! We need each other to each contribute what we do well to make our collective effort as strong as it can be. The Centers for Disease Control lists seven science-based strategies for schools and communities to reduce bullying. One of them is "promote connectedness." Connectedness can happen as we discover differences, appreciating and celebrating our uniqueness, and at the same time, discovering how we are alike.
A common elementary school learning activity is a Venn Diagram.
The concept of the Venn Diagram is placing similarities and differences in the circles- things unique to each in the outer circles and things shared in the overlapping circle. An easy activity is to have two people put their names on each circle and discover at least 3 uniquenesses and 3 commonalities together.
As a college freshman, I lived in a dorm room with a "potluck" roommate- another student randomly assigned to me. I came with a car load of cute country-themed pink and blue quilts, pillows and wall-hangings ready to decorate our room just so. My new roommate however had arrived a few hours ahead of me and already hung posters of whales from floor to ceiling with a giant tie-dye flag in the middle stating "Save the Whales!" painted on it. Her mother had made curtains for the bathrooms with stenciled dolphins. Needless to say, we were two very different people. And I can say among many lessons learned that year, the most important was that different isn't bad- it's just different.
Different is to be discovered, celebrated and appreciated. Let's start by modeling that in our own lives- and helping the young people in our charge to do the same!
For parents: Make a family-sized Venn Diagram on a poster. Make a circle for each person that all overlap in the middle. List at least 3 things in each space on the diagram. Next, affirm each other's unique qualities, i.e. "Michael, I'm so glad you are fast- I love to watch you run!" or "Sarah, it's great that you love math- someday you are going to be a great accountant for your family and your job."
For schools: Celebrate the "rainbow" of people at your school. Have everyone wear their favorite color shirt to school and take pictures. Compare the pictures in color and black-and-white. Have students do Venn Diagrams with each other. Assign partners across the classroom with children who might not otherwise interact and facilitate the exercise. Watch how they enjoy discovering the things they have in common!