The True Story of an Accidental Bully

Tools to help kind kids fix their mistakes.

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Bullying haunts every parents’ mind from time to time. Whenever an egregious account of bullying in schools makes headlines, we can't help but worry.

Will my child get bullied this year?

Or worse. Will my child be a bully?

One parent in our Membership Circle encountered this worst fear on the very first day of school, and she has graciously agreed to let me share her story.

When she picked up her third-grade son from school that first day, he wasn't the smiling, chatterbox she expected. When he ducked up to his room instead of raiding the cupboard for a snack, she knew something was up. 

Thankfully, third-graders aren't great at secret-keeping. It only took a couple of gentle questions before his story tumbled out.

“I think I did something reeeally bad today." he said quietly, not meeting her gaze.

"Tell me about it."

"There's a new boy, Dylan. He's trying to steal my friendship with Jace,” he told her grumpily.

Apparently, one of his best friends since kindergarten, Jace, had a new neighbor, Dylan, who happened to be in their class. When mom gently asked him what happened, her son threw himself into an impassioned answer.

“Well, Oscar and I had to tell Dylan we didn’t have room for him in our game.”

"You told him what?"

Now, this mom has been committed to raising a kind kid since he was a baby. And she's been a part of our Membership Circle since he was in kindergarten. Her stomach churned with the thought that in spite of all their big-hearted books, conversations, and projects over the years, her son had just become the bully.

The look on her face must have given away her disappointment. Her son teared up and tried to explain himself.

"Well, I didn't say he couldn't play. I just stood there while Oscar said it."

"But you knew it was wrong?"

"I think so. But I was worried he was trying to be Jace's friend without me."

This mother had her response ready – she tells me - thanks to the tips and tools she's received from Doing Good Together over the years.

Without missing a beat, she started asking leading questions that helped her son think through what just happened. She asked him a series of "180s"--  that is, questions that challenge someone to put themselves in another's shoes. 

  • “How do you think that made him feel?”

  • "How do you think it would feel to be in a brand new school where the only person he knows his your neighbor?”

  • “What could you have done instead?”

Honesty. Courage. Friendship. Empathy.

They talked about that fearful feeling you get when you think a friendship is growing apart. They made a snack and talked about the importance of being open to new friendships. They sat together and talked and talked.

“Are you mad?” he finally asked with teary eyes. His slumped shoulders and downward gaze made it clear how embarrassed he felt.

Mom gave him a hug and told him what he needed to hear.

“I know you are kind. You have such a big heart. You made a big mistake today. But I love you even when you make a mistake. And tomorrow, you’ll have a chance to fix it.”

Her son burst into relieved tears, hugging her hard.

The next day, he woke up early. Unprompted, he found a small toy to share with Dylan.

At the end of the day, mom asked how the new kid reacted to his apology and the gift.

“Well, I apologized to him right away, and he forgave me. But he seemed mad at Oscar still. So I gave my gift to Oscar, so he could make friends with Dylan."

"No one knows it came from you?"

"No, I wanted us all to be friends. All four of us played together at recess. Dylan has a cool lunch box. And he's really fast.”

And off he went to play.

We at DGT love this story. It so clearly shows the power of a kindness practice. If we teach kids to share kindness day by day, they come to think of themselves as compassionate people. It's part of who they are.

That won't protect them from every mistake. Each and every one of us has our not-so-nice days. We may act cruelly out of fear or discomfort. We may say something rude when we're feeling jealous or tired or simply hungry.

It's important for kids to understand that we're all learning.

By practicing kindness as a family, we can get better at recognizing and correcting our mistakes. This practice trains us as parents to meet our children's challenges and missteps with compassion, a deep breath, and probing questions.

It's clear, the conversations we have day by day can and do have a powerful impact on who our children become. Honesty. Courage. Friendship. Empathy. These strengths of character are built and strengthened, one big-hearted conversation, one act of kindness at a time.

Empower your young "upstander" with these essential tools.

1. Develop emotional intelligence.

Click to print Doing Good Together's Feelings Flashcards.

Click to print Doing Good Together's Feelings Flashcards.

Having a high emotional intelligence is associated with better personal decision-making and a greater willingness to help others, the essential recipe for becoming an upstander. Make a habit of helping your child notice emotions, their own as well as those of others, by saying things like:

  • "How did that make you feel?"

  • "Your friend must have felt ____ [when something happened]."

  • "How do you think you would have felt ____ [in someone else's position]?"

Download our Feelings Flashcards, and play a variety of games designed to help your child recognize and define nuanced emotions. For more tools, revisit our article Expanding EQ: Tools to Raise Resilient, Empathetic Children.

2. Talk about "bullying behavior," not "the bully."

Let's emphasize bullying as a verb, rather than "the bully" as a noun.

The mom in this story was very moved by the relief on her son's face when she told him mistakes happen, you can do better, you are kind.  The fact is, we believe the stories we tell about ourselves, and we believe the labels others give us.

Calling someone a bully is not as helpful as labeling the behavior as "bullying behavior." Behavior can be improved. Identity cannot.
Read more about raising "Upstanders" in our popular newsletter.

3. Read widely.

Our collection of picture books and chapter books about bullying provide a great starting point for parents interested in bringing up the topic before bullying behavior becomes an issue.

Of course, each and every book offers an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of someone else, an essential part of strengthening your empathy "muscles." Browse our collection of topical book lists to find a book that speaks to your family.

Click here for the complete book list.

Click here for the complete book list.

Click here for the complete book list.

Click here for the complete book list.


Are you part of a big-hearted family? Make it official!

Join our Big-Hearted Families Membership Circle!
We'll help you keep kindness on your family calendar all year long.

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The recommendations we offer are based solely on our mission to empower parents to raise children who care and contribute.