Bullying Begins at Home

Kids learn hate from those around them

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    One of my sons likes pink. When playing dress-up with his mixed-gender group of friends, he often goes for the dresses, since they’re fancier than the boy stuff. He has studied ballet since he was four, and his hair goes down to his shoulders.

    All this was enough to lead a neighborhood kid he’d never seen before to suggest that he is gay -- and to make it clear that that’s a bad thing.

    My son isn’t gay, because he’s 6 years old. As Martin Prince of “The Simpsons” once protested, “I’m not gay; I’m nothing yet.” If my son does turn out to be gay, it will mean little to him or us. The parents of two of the kids in his first toddler playgroup were gay, as are the parents of several of his Sunday School classmates.

    If he knows what “gay” means at all, he knows it’s not a pejorative. To be taunted as “gay” is, to him, akin to being taunted for having brown eyes or dimples -- it’s simply confusing. None of these characteristics are good or bad -- they just are.

    So he and his brother were puzzled when, at a park in our neighborhood this week, a child of about 5 and another, about 7, showed up and immediately began fighting with each other. My sons fight, but they have a good sense of when a line is about to be crossed, and they can usually step back. These two, though, were pummeling each other.

    After a while, the fight broke up, and the combatants came over to talk with my boys. It was friendly enough, as they discussed video games and Halloween and the stuff kids get excited about. But then, the first two, egged on by another new arrival, decided to get violent again.

    The youngest one, who seemed to like my guys, tried to recruit the long-haired one into the scuffle. “Let’s get him!” he yelled. My son replied, “I’m not ‘getting’ anybody,” and walked off.

    After Round Two had ended, the group gathered again, but the conversation turned ugly fast. “He has long hair!” shouted the 5-year-old. “He’s gay!” One of the kids then produced a lighter, and threatened to set his hair on fire -- to burn the gay out of him, I assume.

    It was probably an idle threat, and these kids seemed more confused than hateful. (One of them also bragged that he was planning to grow his own hair long.) But they didn’t come up with these notions themselves. They learned them -- whether at school, on the street, or at home. Someone trained these children to think that way.

    The suicides of 13-year-old Seth Walsh and 18-year-old Tyler Clementi -- who were old enough to know they were gay, and unfortunate enough to suffer for it -- and cases of bullying that were not linked to sexual orientation, such as the taunting that led 15-year-old Phoebe Prince to kill herself have put the issue of bullying on the front page. One answer is the It Gets Better Project, which tells LGBT youth that things will improve. But others seek a legal solution.

    Georgia became the first state to adopt an anti-bullying law 11 years ago, and all but a few states now have such laws. The District of Columbia is now considering the Harassment and Intimidation and Prevention Act of 2010, which includes protections for LGBT youth as sought by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

    Some D.C. Council members and civil libertarians fear the measure goes too far, saying it would classify any sort of verbal hostility -- intended, perceived, or merely accidental -- as sanctionable bullying. D.C. Public Schools officials, however, support the bill.

    It is unlikely to be taken up before the next Council term, and the Council should take its time with it. But certainly all can agree that a great place to start is in the home, teaching children that hatefulness is never acceptable.

    Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC