When we started looking into daycare, we immediately eliminated centers that had a strict “no biting” policy. Although our son was only 10 months old at the time, we had a feeling he might be a bully. Sure, biting is a normal behavioral phase for some kids, but not all kids bite. Our son always has a look of mischief in his eye, so we thought we should be prepared.
Now that he’s 14 months old, it wasn’t a surprise when his daycare teacher told me there was a “biting incident.” What was a surprise though was that he was the victim! A not entirely blameless victim, however, since the biter did so after he tried to steal his/her food four times. Sure enough, on the back of his arm was the red outline of a full set of toddler teeth. Although my first mommy instinct was “which one of you little brats bit my baby,” I was relieved that the perpetrator wasn’t ostracized, as we might soon be on the other side of this situation.
While toddler biting isn’t really bullying, it jump-started my thinking about how I would handle bullies or bullying when N gets older. The next day, I was at the Philadelphia Pride Parade and overjoyed to see the Care with Pride float, a new partnership between Johnson & Johnson and Walgreens that created a campaign to end bullying and make schools safe for all. The message nearly made me cry, looking at the hundreds of LGBT youth around me along the parade route and thinking about the bullies they face regularly. I thought about the bullies I saw in high school and remembered the racial prejudice that my best friend Sophia, a Korean American, and my sister, a Chinese adoptee, faced in our homogenous hometown, an upper middle class White beach community. It’s almost too painful even to type the racial slurs that were used, or the facial gestures that were made, or the ignorant comments that were slung. When my sister moved to Vermont and started at a new school, her principal introduced her to the gym teacher, who responded “does she even speak English?” This reminded me that bullies come in all sizes.
In a few weeks I will start my new position as an attending physician in a South Philadelphia pediatrics practice. Just two years ago, the local South Philadelphia High School had a period where Asian students were being bullied by Black students, with at least 30 students becoming injured, resulting in a school boycott and pleas to the U.S. State and Justice Departments. I have had Black and Asian students from this school in my office and have discussed both sides of this dispute with the ultimate message that school should be safe for everyone. I am reminded now to continue to repeat this message to all my adolescent patients.
My reality is that I am raising a White male. I often think about how I will teach him about race, gender, and sexuality. I was guilty of believing in the “Diverse Environment Theory,” which is that if you raise a child with a fair amount of exposure to people of other races and cultures the environment becomes the message, as Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman describe in their book Nurture Shock. I thought that the examples of bullying and discrimination that I described from my youth happened because I was raised in a New Jersey suburb, but that growing up in Philadelphia, my son would be more culturally sophisticated. Bronson and Merryman review a number of studies and case scenarios that show that the diverse environment alone isn’t enough and that parents need to openly discuss race in order to teach children the messages we want them to learn from us and not the wrong messages that they could potentially learn from society. The incident in South Philadelphia highlights how true this is, but also how ambiguous parents and schools can feel about openly discussing racial differences in an era of desegregation and equality.
Just as we are reluctant to discuss issues of race, we are also hesitant to acknowledge and teach young children about gender and sexuality. I have moved these discussions into my parenting register, so that he will not only grow up in Philadelphia’s gayborhood surrounded by his Asian aunt, Black babysitter, and his parents’ gay friends, but that through our discussions he will be aware and respectful of the differences between these people and celebrate them. My dream is that he will also know that he is free to be who he is and is safe doing so. Before tackling these complex issues, I think we will start with learning respect for other’s food to prevent future bitings!