This past week, USA TODAY published an article about a school that banned a 9-year-old's backpack. My immediate thought was that it had to be because there was profanity on it, or a controversial symbol. Nope. Grayson Bruce of Buncombe County, North Carolina is no longer allowed to wear his fuzzy, blue My Little Pony backpack. (Perhaps, now that this story made headlines, Rainbow Dash pony is a controversial symbol—the jury is still out.)
Grayson was teased by his classmates for wearing the backpack, to the point that he was scared to get out of the car one morning when his mother drove him to school. So, naturally, his mom, Nora, got the school involved. But, shockingly, the school's solution was to ban the offending backpack.
It is the duty of parents to teach their children to stand up for themselves and try to boost their confidence as they become who they are. Sometimes a child's attempt to self-advocate will not work, and that's when parents should step in. But, in turn, schools must respond with the best interest of all of its students in mind. Banning a backpack that was a reason for Grayson's peers to make fun of him is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. The backpack is so clearly not the root of the problem—and I wouldn't be surprised if once the backpack was eliminated from the equation, these bullies would have taunted Grayson for some other reason.
The school sent powerful messages (and the wrong ones, in my opinion) when they addressed this bullying problem the way that they did:
1. Bullying is not the fault of the bully, but the victim. When the school forced Grayson to give up his backpack, they essentially agreed with the bullies that it was inappropriate or strange. They validated the taunting and made Grayson feel like he was guilty of making trouble. This is not a message we can afford to teach our children, especially at an age when they are forming moral principles. It only perpetuates a cycle of victim-blaming in our adult world.
2. It's ok to avoid the emotional root of problems if it will reach a resolution more easily and quickly. The root of this bullying situation is a lack of acceptance for who Grayson is and how he expresses his personality. It would have been more useful and appropriate to use this moment to teach tolerance and compassion for people who may not be like you, and to say that bullying is not acceptable.
3. Bullies will get their way. The backpack was forbidden. The bullies got what they wanted. Nora pulled Grayson from school and now teaches him at home. These kids contributed to getting rid of Grayson. This consequence was positive reinforcement of their behavior.
Teaching these messages not only directly harmed Grayson, I say it harmed the development of an entire community of young students. I was bullied (emotionally and physically) in high school and my school essentially chose to ignore it—not helpful to me or to my peers. If we truly want bullying to end in our schools, and I think we do, we need to respond more appropriately and effectively to moments like this.
Grayson—if you're reading—I think My Little Pony rocks. If you like it, wear it.
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Back to School: Dealing With Meanness and Bullying
Photograph: Credit Suzanne Tucker via Shutterstock