It’s happened again. Cyberbullying in a middle school — and a sixth grader committed suicide.
Mallory Grossman of Rockaway Township was 12 years old, blonde, blue eyed, with a big smile and braces. She became a target for bullies and her parents were aware and worried.
I watched Mallory’s parents interviewed on TV. They were articulate and measured. Parents in anguish, seeking answers, wanting accountability. As soon as they became aware of their daughter’s social difficulties, they went repeatedly to the school administration seeking assistance and intervention. It seemed they did everything they could to try to help Mallory, and yet the system failed them. Why?
What can we learn from this tragedy to help us protect our children?
As a former principal and school psychologist at a local day school, bullyprevention and conflict resolution were areas of paramount importance to me. Engaging in conflict resolution between children as soon as an issue became apparent was imperative. While problems did not disappear immediately, we made the effort to directly address issues quickly and thoroughly, which usually led to a marked reduction in conflicts. We worked hard to help students learn to use common language to discuss and to subsequently continue to resolve their issues.
Sometimes, however, we were not made aware of problems that were occurring when teachers could not see them. Sometimes children were fearful or reluctant to report what was happening to them. Both may have been the case with Mallory.
Nothing strikes fear in the heart of a parent more than knowing that their child is in danger, physically or emotionally. While the bulk of our school day is spent focusing on academics, time also must be allocated to developing our children’s emotional intelligence, right alongside their academic intelligence. I’ve seen, time and again, how children’s social-emotional state drives their academic achievement. Children who are bullied will often feel sad, depressed, or anxious in school, and that makes it hard for them to concentrate on their academics. Children who are bystanders to bullying, feeling helpless and unsure how to react, also are distressed and affected by it.
It’s about time that we start making it a priority to combat bullying by creating a school culture where it’s cool to be kind. An Emotional Intelligence curriculum should be introduced into all grades, from preschool through high school, providing sensitivity and emotional skill development; teaching students how to identify, understand, label, express, and regulate their emotions. Just as students are taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, they can be taught these skills as well. Students can learn effective strategies for recognizing negative behaviors and managing their feelings, both positive and negative; allowing them to navigate their complicated social and emotional worlds with greater awareness, understanding, sensitivity, and compassion.
Our Torah is chock full of guidelines on how to be sensitive and caring to every one of God’s creatures, whether they fly, swim, walk on two feet, or on four.
Just as we are taught to be kind to animals, we must learn to be kind to each other.
Since it is impossible for the Torah to list every detail of proper human conduct and positive character traits in all friendship and business interactions beyond the Ten Commandments, the Torah tells us that we should do what is “right and good” in the eyes of God. Ramban, the 13th century biblical scholar, explains that the deeper meaning of this text “do what is right and good…” comes to teach us that we should act ethically and listen to our conscience at all times.
Naturally, we all strive to raise children who are menschen, and we try to protect our children from harm and from bullies. Sometimes, however, it turns out that our own children may have some bullying tendencies, and here we have an important job to do in addressing this as well. We as parents and educators have an opportunity to teach our children to do what is “right and good,” to act ethically and to listen to our conscience, not to allow the bully within us to rear its ugly head.
Just as we are obligated to teach our children how to protect themselves, we must also teach them how to protect others. The best way to bully-proof a child is to teach empathy. When children can imagine themselves in another person’s predicament, they are less likely to become bullies and more likely to interfere when another child is being bullied.
Here are some tips to help your child learn empathy by considering the feelings of others:
• Using pictures in a magazine, take turns making up situations that encourage putting yourself in another person’s shoes. (For example: This boy got shoved in the playground. How would you feel if that happened to you?)
• While reading stories or watching videos together, highlight when one character shows empathy for another. (Jake noticed how unhappy Suzie was when she was being teased. So glad he stood up for her.)
• Offering a compliment to a classmate is a great way to make someone else feel good. Encourage your child to focus on a classmate’s strengths rather than on why they can’t be friends. In art class, tell someone you like their painting, or congratulate the winner of a spelling bee or sports event. Your child may be surprised to see that her nice words will motivate others to offer compliments as well.
• When someone in the family is acting in an angry or mean way, model for your child how to show empathy. ( “Your sister seems to be having a bad day. Let’s ask her how we can help.”)
• The dinner table at home is a great place to teach respect and empathy. Teach your child to thank the cook (Mom, Dad, a grandparent, babysitter, etc.). Emphasize respecting a person’s time and effort by acknowledging that “this delicious meal must have taken a long time to prepare.”
• When shopping in a store, explain that we can show respect by not creating extra work for shopkeepers. If you change your mind about an item, help your child return it to where it belongs. After you put your groceries in the car, have your child walk with you to return the cart to its proper location.
Most importantly, show your children how much kindness happens around them every day, and ask them to suggest ways they can be kind too. Big and small opportunities exist daily. My personal favorite strategy is to pay it forward.
Make it a family rule to repay a kindness with a kindness. If someone holds the door open for your child to enter the restaurant, your child can re-pay the kindness forward by holding the door open for someone else.
By performing simple acts of kindness and compassion, we can inspire and motivate our children to think of others. Every day, there are many opportunities to teach children to show respect and to have empathy. When a child learns to put others first, kindness and compassion becomes second nature and bullying disappears.
Speak to your children about Mallory Grossman. Raising the issue of suicide does not increase the risk or put the idea in a person’s mind. On the contrary, it creates the opportunity to educate. Even though suicide is a very difficult topic, it’s important that we speak to our children about it so that we can better understand what they know and how they are feeling.
Start a conversation about depression and despair; how feelings of hopelessness can lead one to contemplate ending a life. Most importantly, share with them the painful and lasting impact suicide has on everyone. Ask them how they feel about what happened. Let them know how you feel about it.
Through dialogue we create better understanding, connectivity, and develop open lines of communication that may better enable us to protect our children.
May Mallory’s memory be a blessing.
Dr. Tani Foger of Englewood is an educator, school psychologist, and the former head of Yeshivat He’Atid.