The Day I Beat My Bully
When I was 6 I had a frenemy. She was my friend one on one but made fun of me severely when any other kids were around. It hurt. As a small child, I didn’t know how to deal with it. I remember one time, it got so bad that I finally told my dad. I told him that this person nicknamed me a moron, and then made everyone else call me that too. I remember hoping he would do something, somehow avenge my poor wounded little heart, but he didn’t. Instead, he told me this:
“Are you a moron?” my dad asked.
“No!” I cried bitterly.
“Do you know that for sure?” he asked, “Really think about it. What is a moron?”
“A dumb person?” I questioned, offended and saddened. He was my protector and he wasn’t protecting me at all.
“Yes, ok. So are you a dumb person?”
“No, I am not!” I said emphatically.
“How do you know? What is your proof?”
I thought about this. Many people had told me I was smart. I loved to read, something my dad had previously told me was a sign of intelligence. I was good at blocks and drawing. All signs pointed to ‘not a moron,’ I explained.
“Well,” he said, “Does the fact that someone called you a moron make you a moron then?”
I thought about this again.
“No, I’m not a moron.” I said.
“Then remember this, Mariam. People will say a lot of bad things to you in your life and not everyone will like you, even if you want them to. But no matter what people say to you, or about you, you have to know who you are, and you can’t let anyone’s words change how you feel about yourself. Now, are you a moron?”
“No,” I said, “but I want you to tell them to stop!” because it wasn’t just about my friend. It was that everyone else was saying it too. It was because it wasn’t fair and it wasn’t nice and it made me cry.
“I can go and tell them to stop and they’ll stop for now. But if I do that, she’ll win. Because that means that you believed her and you were to weak to stand up for yourself so you told your daddy. And next time, when I’m not here, they’ll do it even worse, because they’ll know that I won’t be there to protect you and that you can’t protect yourself. Is that what you want? If you do, I’ll go and tell them right now.”
I stood outside the door where all the kids were playing. I heard them having a great time while I stood outside, tears in my eyes, deciding my fate.
“No, I don’t want that. But I don’t know what to do if she says that again and everyone laughs.”
“Do you remember why she called you a moron? What happened right before that?”
I thought about it and remembered that right before, adults were complimenting me and I felt really good. Directly after that, all the kids went to another room and within 5 minutes, she called me a moron. I told my dad what happened.
“Do you think she called you that because she felt bad that you got a lot of attention and she didn’t?”
“What hurts you more? That she calls you names or that everyone laughs?”
I thought about it. “That everyone laughs, daddy.” The names were unpleasant but the laughter made it feel like everyone agreed.
“Everyone laughs because they’re scared of being called names too. If they laugh, she won’t notice them. And she calls you names because it makes her feel better about herself. She called you a moron because of who she is, not who you are. When you show her that you feel bad by crying or leaving or telling on her, it gives her power and she wins. All you have to do is smile and make it look like you’re not sad, even if you are. You can even tell her that she’s funny. When she sees she can’t make you feel bad, she’ll stop. And when she’s not around, you can remind yourself that everything she said wasn’t true. And if it was true, then maybe you need to fix it.”
I stood there, thinking about the situation. Imagining myself walking in there and owning the room. I imagined myself winning, just this once.
“So do you want me to talk to her?” he asked.
“No, dad, I got this.” I said. He looked at little me, smiled and gave me a hug. And while he hugged me, he whispered, “You’re my smart, brave, beautiful little girl and you need to always know that, no matter what anyone says to you.”
I felt better, wiped my snot and my tears, took a deep breath and walked into the room. I felt nervous but excited, with visions of a clear and visible win. Like I would play things off so cool and she would finally bow down to my greatness and concede all her power over me. As I walked in, our eyes locked and with a smirk she said, “Oh no smart brave little girl told her daddy. Don’t play with Mariam guys, she’s going to tattle on you!”
She had listened to the whole thing. She heard every last word and went to town tearing me down. She mocked everything he said and everything I said, until finally I cried and ran out of the room again.
“Daddy! She did it again!” I was hysterical. The tears wouldn’t stop and my little pride, so much littler now, was in agony. I thought I’d never face them again. “She heard everything daddy!”
He took me aside. The other adults started asking what happened but he motioned for them not to get involved. We walked to a different part of the house and spoke again.
“She heard everything and she made fun of me for it!” This time, no one laughed. This time, it was worse. She had stripped me of my last remaining defense. The only way I could walk away with my dignity was gone and I hated her and feared her so.
My dad listened to the incoherent story and then said, “Come on,” with a laugh, “I thought you were stronger than this.” I was shocked. Surely now he would do something. I wanted him to start a scene with the adults. I wanted her to suffer. But instead, it was me who was suffering.
“Now what??? Now how can I ever win???”
“By never forgetting who you are inside. It doesn’t matter if she heard me saying those things. It doesn’t even matter what I say to you right now. You need to know that you are strong, and you are brave and you are smart. You need to know what’s good about you and what’s bad about you, so no one can ever make you feel bad with their words. And if you know what they’re saying isn’t true, even when it feels bad inside, you can control how you act. And if you act strong, they’ll leave you alone. Because it’s not fun for someone like that to pick on someone who doesn’t care. She wants you to cry and run out of the room and to tell me. She wants me to come and get mad at her. Do you want me to do what she wants? Are you the kind of person who wants their dad to fix their problems or the kind of person who deals with their problems herself?”
He spoke to my bleeding pride and my dying strength. But he knew his child and he sent me into that room once more.
I walked in, this time with my eyes bright red. I was terrified. But I knew I couldn’t go back to my father a failure.
“Back for more?” she was meaner than ever. I looked her in the eyes and flashed a weak smile. I went over to another friend, a kinder soul, and started playing. Throughout the night, and for years to come, she continued to pick on me. She called me names, got me in trouble, and even got physical sometimes. But from that moment on, each time she did, I didn’t let her see the hurt and afterwards self-talked until I felt better. I reminded myself of my virtues and told myself she picked me on because of who she was, and not who I was. I replayed those conversations with my father, every time I faced similar hardships, even into adulthood.
The bullying didn’t stop, but over time it stopped bothering me. As my confidence grew, ignoring her turned into standing up to her and eventually just laughing it off, which was the biggest offense.
As a parent today, I can’t imagine how it felt to send your crying little child into definite hurt. But every day I’m grateful he did, because he taught me how to deal with adversity at a young age. Bullying is a complex problem with no one solution. My dad knew I wasn’t in danger, otherwise he would have stepped in. But he also knew that he if fixed it for me, I would never learn to process these situations or these feelings myself. This generation of parents often shields their children from negative emotions. We step in too much and don’t let our kids navigate the complicated world of social interaction while the stakes are still low. It’s good for both the bullies and the victims if we teach our kids how to stand up for themselves. Bullies need to learn that sometimes they might mess with the wrong person, and get an equal but opposite reaction. Victims need to know, at the very least, that the words of others don’t define them.
That’s why I let my kid struggle, every chance she gets. I don’t get involved when she has conflicts with her friends; I don’t let her win (every time) at games or races; and I don’t help her make perfect castles from her blocks. Because just like that night, the outcome wasn’t perfect even though the struggle was real. And I didn’t get a visible win, but neither did my bully, ever again. And it felt good knowing that she no longer had the power to bring me to tears anytime she wanted.