Q: I’m afraid to send my child to public school. I was bullied a lot as a child, and I don’t want them to experience the same thing. I’m considering homeschooling. Is that a good idea?
A: I completely understand your fears. Bullying is a horrible issue, and can cause long-lasting damage to children. It’s also a very common issue—most adults I know felt that they were miserable and bullied in at least one year of their primary schooling.
There are a lot of factors to weigh when considering homeschool. The school environment serves an important function for developing children, particularly learning how to interact with their peers and follow directions from authority figures. School is good preparation for a college environment, and even a work environment later on. After all, in a traditional work setting, one must still accept direction and guidance from a manager while working with peers to complete tasks.
It’s certainly possible to get kids to develop those skills while homeschooled, but it’s essential that they can interact with other children their age. Additionally, in a school setting, children are exposed to lots of kids of different ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and must learn how to interact with all of them while being respectful of differences.
If you’re set on homeschooling, try to find a local homeschooling group or co-op so your child can practice those valuable group social skills with a diverse group of kids. When I was in high school, there were several kids who were in a class environment for the first time after being homeschooled previously. Unfortunately, many of them had a hard time fitting in because of small things like dressing differently than the other children, unfamiliarity with popular media, and lower conversation skills.
When considering traditional school, it’s important to understand that it will not always be a disaster. Schools currently treat bullying much more seriously than they used to. And there are many options for remedying the situation if a bullying situation does arise.
If you do opt to send your child to a traditional school, try not to let your fears rub off on them. If they think that “my parents say school is terrible and all the kids are mean,” they will definitely feel that way. Give them a clean slate to start, and deal with potential issues as they arise.
It’s very important to recognize the warning signs of a bad classroom situation vs. a normal one. For example, I recall one incident when I was in second grade—I had told my group of friends that Santa wasn’t real. They very much believed in Santa, and told me they wouldn’t be my friend again until I believed in Santa too.
Was it silly, immature, and mean for them to “force” me to say I believed in Santa? Absolutely. But this is a fairly normal type of situation for kids who are still figuring out how to socialize. In the end, no lasting harm was done and I’m fairly sure they all figured out that Santa wasn’t real within a year or two. It wasn’t real malicious bullying, or anything like that.
Now, if your child is habitually being excluded, teased relentlessly by their classmates, or being frequently put down by the teachers, it’s another situation altogether. Examples could be if your child’s classmates usually invite everyone else to their parties except your child, or if your child isn’t usually allowed to sit with the other kids at lunch time, if they are always getting made fun of (especially for something outside of their control), or if the teacher is getting them in trouble for no reason or insulting them. In those situations, the bullying can cause lasting psychological damage to your child.
If traditional means of resolving the situation (such as involving the parents and the school administration) has failed, look at removing your child from the classroom. Sometimes everything improves just by having them in another class at the same school, but sometimes they need to attend a different school altogether. Private schools are often much better about keeping bullies under control, even though they are more expensive. And homeschooling can be a good option too, even if temporary.
If you find that your child is getting bullied, it’s important that you work with them to understand reasons for it. It’s rarely completely senseless. Often, a child will become a bully when they have parents who bully them. If your child understands that “Mike makes fun of me and calls me stupid because his parents tell him that he’s stupid. He doesn’t know any better,” it can help them heal. Other times, they might witness their parents bullying other people and mimic that behavior. If they see their parents mistreating people they don’t like or people they believe to be inferior to them (such as waiters, housekeepers, employees, etc.) they will often mimic that behavior in the classroom.
Sometimes, bullies latch onto something “wrong/different” a child does. If the behavior is truly benign (such as getting made fun of for liking an unpopular TV show), it isn’t likely that they will be bullied for it again when they are in a different environment.
However, if a child does have an annoying or bad habit they are getting teased over, they are likely to get bullied again in a new class or school until they grow out of the behavior. If you notice that your child is doing something that annoys other children (such as always cutting in line, always talking out of turn, always correcting others, smelling bad, making annoying noises, constantly following or bothering someone, etc.) you should gently try to redirect that behavior so they don’t get teased for it anymore.
When a classmate has tried the right ways of dealing with these issues (like calmly asking the child to stop their annoying behavior) to no avail, they often get frustrated and resort to hostile behaviors. Sometimes, you can end up in a situation where both parties feel bullied!
For example, there could be a child that is constantly correcting their classmates because they care very much about everyone knowing the “right” way to do something. Their classmates feel like they are being put down and demeaned by the correcting child. It makes them feel insecure and stupid, even though it isn’t the original child’s intention. In return, they start excluding the other child from their group activities, which made the original child feel left out and unwanted. They also tease the original child, as a way to “get back” at them for making them feel stupid. The original child doubles down on their correcting behavior, because they need to feel validated by being “smarter” than the other mean kids.
In this kind of toxic cycle, both parties need to recognize that their actions are unhelpful, and need to be patient with each other and gently redirect each other’s behavior. The correcting child needs to say “it hurts my feelings when you leave me out of the invitations to parties,” and the other children need to say “it hurts our feelings when you correct our spelling mistakes.” Both parties need to try and change themselves to fit in better. However, elementary schoolers rarely have that kind of maturity and self-awareness, so it’s very difficult to effectively correct this kind of situation. It is probably better to change the class environment and work on the original annoying behavior separately so it isn’t an issue next time.
In the end, only you can make the right decision for your child. However, it’s important that you set aside your own fears when evaluating the facts. If your child’s local school is known to have a bullying issue, it may be wise to homeschool. However, if the school is known to foster an inclusive and healthy environment for students, it may be worth giving it a shot to see how it plays out for your child. With you as a careful parent who is ready to guide their child through navigating difficult social situations, your child will likely have a much more positive experience than you did.