IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

School bullying taught me that parenting children the way I was raised no longer worked

Because of my latch-key mindset, it took me a whole year to understand what was happening to my daughter.
Image: Illustration of a mother hugging her upset daughter, with word bubbles and urgent symbols inside of their heads.
I’m watching my children in a different way now. I’m keeping a closer eye on the wolves, and listening to the sheepdog when she barks a warning.Olivia Waller / for NBC News

When my older daughter was 9 1/2 years old and in fourth grade, she reserved a Percy Jackson book at her school library. After waiting weeks for her turn, she was thrilled when her name was finally called. Then, the boys in line behind her told her she should let one of them have it instead. “Everyone knows you can’t read it anyway,” they told her.

I realize now that I never actually ignored the language of my childhood environment. I never actually shook anything off. I absorbed every word.

My daughter has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is dyslexic and struggled to read at that time. But she still loved books. She liked to listen to me read them to her, even if she didn’t enjoy working to read them herself. But when her classmates insulted her, they might as well have ripped the book out of her hands and thrown it into a fire. It no longer held any joy for her.

The message followed my daughter throughout the rest of the year. Kids taunted her at gym, telling her she was too stupid to be on their team. One class project partner said to her, “Just go sit on the side, you’re worthless.” When she approached the lunch table to sit down, a lunch box was placed on the empty chair and the girl sitting beside it told her, “This seat is taken.”

By the end of the school year, my beautiful 10-year-old daughter was broken. When she looked in the mirror, she no longer saw her vivid green eyes, milelong lashes and gorgeous chestnut hair. When she cartwheeled across our lawn, she no longer felt pride at her ability to fly across the ground. When I suggested a book I thought she’d enjoy, she threw it across the room and told me she was too stupid to understand it.

While I was always a hands-on parent who believed in the importance of being present, I also believed in fostering independence and encouraging my children to solve problems on their own. Until my daughter’s experience, I’d never had reason to question that approach.

This was my style of parenting because I’m a true child of the 1980s, the latchkey generation. I’m one of the kids who grew up in a suburb of New York City where our parents sent us out into the street without a phone (let alone GPS tracking) and left us to our own devices with little thought about where we were or what we were up to.

If a kid called one of us fat or ugly or stupid, or pushed us into the snow, or stole our baseball cards on the playground, we didn’t run home and tell our parents. Most likely they weren’t home, and if they were, they’d roll their eyes and tell us to stop being such babies.

Despite the bullying we endured, we learned to trust our intuition and judgment — as immature as it might have been — because it was all we had to back us up. We learned to face our fears, and we learned we could get back up again after we were knocked down.

My childhood experience informs all of my parenting decisions, the ones I’m proud of and the ones I’m not. Because of this mindset, it took me a whole year to understand what was happening to my daughter; a whole year before I acted definitively and switched her school.

I was by her side, but I didn’t really see what was going on. I told her to shrug off unkind words, stay away from mean girls, focus on the kids who were her friends, and pick herself up and brush herself off when she got knocked down. I didn’t ask her how she felt about the way she was being treated, so I didn’t immediately see the impact of what was happening to her.

I was old-school parenting because I had survived many a playground taunt and lived to tell the tale. I thought I was teaching her to be resilient, to form her sense of self based upon her own opinions of her self-worth. But that was naive and unfair. Words shape us without our knowledge. They are insidious in the way they creep up on us, seeping into our pores until we become defined by them.

The first times people commented negatively on my body, my lack of education, my religion are burned into my mind. When I was called a slut at 13, after an encounter I had with a 17-year-old boy at a neighborhood party, I pulled the word inside me and let it wrap itself around my soul. I didn’t challenge it; I didn’t understand it was unjust to shame me.

I realize now that I never actually ignored the language of my childhood environment. I never actually shook anything off. I absorbed every word, lowered my head with every taunt, made myself smaller in the hope that I would attract less attention. I survived, but I didn’t flourish.

And my daughter did the same thing. She turned inward with every taunt from her classmates. She lowered her head in humiliation when her teacher made her repeat her instructions in front of the class. It wasn’t until she finally broke down, crying and kicking the seat in front of her in the car, refusing to get out at morning drop-off, that I really saw what was happening to her.

Now, my daughter bounces again. That was the first thing I noticed in the month after she switched schools. Then she started singing, so loud and clear it filled our house like a songbird singing for its mate. She laughs so loudly, she shakes with her joy. She still has moments of doubt and frustration like we all do, but she is strong, so much stronger than I ever was.

I’m still a big believer in fostering independence, encouraging my children to problem-solve on their own, teaching them to trust and nurture their own instincts. But I’m listening and watching in a different way now.

I realize now that I never actually ignored the language of my childhood environment. I never actually shook anything off. I absorbed every word.

When my second daughter struggled with bullying in her 4th grade year, I had learned my lesson. I watched her body language closely. I paid attention to the downward tilt of her head, the slump of her shoulder, her dragging feet when she approached the car in the pickup line.

So I asked her what her instincts were telling her, how she felt about her environment. I guided her through the process of listening to herself, while making the difficult decisions she ultimately needed me to make. I didn’t hesitate to change her environment this time, even though she worried about leaving the familiar behind.

I still believe it’s important for my children to learn how to accept rejection, shrug off an unkind remark, self-advocate and problem-solve on their own. I’m still walking that fine line between hovering and throwing my children to the young wolves; I’m just keeping a closer eye on the wolves now, and listening to the sheepdog when she barks a warning.