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Son's Bullying Experience Hurt Mom To The Core


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

This week, we want to continue a conversation we've been having on this program about bullying. And we know this is a subject that's been very much in the news and is on the minds of many parents, especially in the wake of a spate of tragic events involving young people who actually harm themselves after they experienced bullying.

On this program recently, we spoke with a brave young man, Aaron Cheese - he's 15 years old - who was featured in a documentary that premiered on the Cartoon Network on Sunday. That film is called "Stop Bullying, Speak Up." And this is a little of what Aaron had to say on our program.

AARON CHEESE: Of course, there's the fear of being called a snitch or just being picked on more because you're a crybaby and went and told somebody about someone making fun of you and I didn't want to increase it by telling someone, but actually, by not telling someone, I was increasing it.

MARTIN: And as it turns out, Aaron's parents did not know that he had been bullied until they saw the documentary, so we decided we wanted to talk more about this from the parents' perspective.

So we've called Aaron's mom, Jean Cheese, and she's with us now. Along with Aaron, she has three other sons. Jean, it's nice to talk to you again.

JEAN CHEESE: Nice speaking with you, too, Michel.

MARTIN: We're also joined by two other moms with important experiences with this issue. Jolene Ivey is one of our regular contributors to our parenting roundtable. She's the cofounder of a parenting support group, a mom of five boys and she's a Maryland state lawmaker who has worked on this issue. Also with us, Rosalind Wiseman. She's the author of the best seller, "Queen Bees and Wannabes." That book was the basis for the popular movie, "Mean Girls." Wiseman was also an advisor to the Cartoon Network film on bullying and she's the mother of two boys.

Ladies, moms, welcome. Thank you for joining us.


JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Jean Cheese, I want to start with you. Your son said he - experiencing bullying starting in elementary school for, you know, all kinds of reasons. You know, because he wore glasses early, he had braces and all, but he says he never said anything to you about it. Why do you think that is?

CHEESE: You know, I asked Aaron the exact same question because I found it odd or maybe just - I was sad that my child didn't come to me. And, really, he said it was that he didn't want to bring that home. Like, he wanted to walk in the door and just be a normal, regular kid. And he also really kind of felt ashamed of how he was treated and was worried about how I would see it or how my husband would see and what our reaction to it would be.

And so, when I saw the documentary - you're right - it was the first time that I had realized it had happened. Even after he was interviewed, he didn't share it. It was only when I saw it. And it just got me in my core when I saw my child and what he had suffered through without me knowing it. I was really overwhelmed and wondered, what did I miss? You know, what I not do? How did I not see it in some way?

MARTIN: Jolene, you're a mom of five boys and I'm wondering whether you have any - in fact, I know you do - some experience with this with at least one or two of your boys. Did they talk to you about it?

IVEY: No. I have a son who was bulled in middle school badly enough that I withdrew him from that school. Unfortunately, I left him there for a whole school year and I figured out somewhere around the middle of the year that something was going on and started asking questions and looking into it and I found out that it was, indeed, happening and I really feel guilty today that I didn't withdraw him at that moment instead of letting him finish out the school year.

MARTIN: Why do you think he didn't tell you?

IVEY: Probably for a lot of the same reasons Aaron didn't tell his mom and the same reasons I didn't tell my parents when I was growing up and I was bullied. You know, I was bullied through the time I got out of middle school and I remember my junior high school graduation. It was one of the happiest days of my life because I said, I never have to see these people again.

MARTIN: And why didn't you tell?

IVEY: I don't know why I didn't tell. I think part of it was I felt like people would know. Like, doesn't my father know that I'm getting beaten up most days? Doesn't he know that? Do I have to, like, articulate to him? I don't know why kids do the things that they do, but it did give me the sign so that when I saw things happening with my own son, I was a little more on top of it.

MARTIN: Ros, you have two boys, nine and 11, and you've thought a lot about this issue and, in fact, the Department of Health and Human Services says around 15 to as many as 25 percent of students report experiencing bullying at some point. So I have to ask, on a personal level, have you experienced this? And why is it that kids don't tell?

WISEMAN: Well, I think Aaron actually sums it up, that you want to put it behind you when you walk in the door. You want some peace. You want a way of looking at yourself in a different way because you feel, when kids are bullying you, that that becomes your identity. And you want another way to have a different way of being when you walk in the door.

And it's embarrassing to tell your parents and, you know it's going to hurt them and it's going to disappoint them and they're going to worry and you feel like, you know, you're also that you're getting to be older and you want to take care of your business, and you're also worried that your parents are going to freak out.

And so one of the things I always talk to kids about is that, you know, we got to dial this back down and that we can figure this out. We can do things in ways that adults can help. So when I talk to parents about when kids come to them, I want them to say, really sorry this happened to you. Thank you for telling me, because it recognizes the risks that people take coming forward. You know, we're going to think this through. We're going to sit down and we'll think about how are you going to take this horrible feeling in your stomach and strategize how to be better.

And, you know, there's two ways in which I think about. One is that dignity is not negotiable for you or for anyone else. And the other is that you, in these very difficult moments, is that you really think about being socially competent in these moments of an abuse of power. And with those two things - with dignity and social competence together, it really calms kids down to say OK, like maybe I'm 100 percent miserable right now but maybe I can get it down to 80 percent misery.

MARTIN: Let me just stop you though, for one second. I think one of the reasons this is so painful for parents is that when you hear that kids as young as elementary school are starting to experience this and in middle school, you know, when kids are little you're their everything. You know, and so you're used to your kids looking to you for everything. And so you just find it very hard to believe that something profound and that hurtful would be happening to your child and that you don't know about it. Any experience with this personally with your kids.

WISEMAN: Oh yeah, of course. I mean I've had, let me tell you, I've on both sides. I've gotten the phone call that my kid was really hurt by a group of kids. And I'm the expert, right, on this. And my child was giving me signs for three before. He was acting out in class. He was being really obnoxious but in ways that were not like particularly beforehand.


WISEMAN: And I didn't look at it 'cause I was getting frustrated at him because right before recess he would act out so he wouldn't have to go to recess. Now I know as a teacher that when that happens I need to look at well, why is this kid acting out? Because kids always act - they always act out for a reason, so it was really hard to see. And then this thing happened where he got, he was being psychologically bullied, you know, we're going to beat you up, right before recess, so that he would start to anticipate and then and it was coming to him in all different kinds of ways and my son is a really big child. He's really tall. And so you felt like oh, no one would ever go after him. But actually, as he said to me, but if I'm the tallest if they get me than they can get anybody.

So, and thank God we have the most wonderful counselor. And she wrapped her arms around him and she called me, and that moment when your kid, when you're getting called to school, the thing you need to say is oh my gosh, I love you so much. I'm so sorry. And then, and just focus on the comfort and security and then go to let's do it. Let's figure out the solution to.

MARTIN: But you've had the other - I'm sorry, but you've had the other side of it too, where...

WISEMAN: Oh, yes I have.


WISEMAN: Yes, I have.

MARTIN: Somebody was the protagonist.

WISEMAN: Where my children were bullying?


WISEMAN: Absolutely.


WISEMAN: It has been going - it has absolutely gone both ways.

MARTIN: What was that about?

WISEMAN: They're definitely there were times where I got a phone call or saw, situations where my kids were acting out. And there was one particular time at a D.C. public playground, where my kid was absolutely obnoxious and called this other kid a name. It was horrible to this child. And it was horrible because his mom he said to me, is that your kid? And before I even knew it, I swear to god, before even I had any control that came out of my mouth, I said no.


WISEMAN: It was a total lie. It was a total lie. And I, and then I realized like, what am I doing? Actually, that is my child. And, so I walked over to that kid - I swear to god - and I walked over to the kid and my child was furious at me 'cause he thought he was completely in the right. My child thought he was completely in the right. And I said, all right. My child just called you a name and he has, and you have come to this playground for the first time. I'm really sorry. On behalf of my family, I'm really sorry, because my child was not going to apologize. And I said I'm really sorry. You have a right to come to this playground and if he ever does this to you again here is my number - my cell number - and you call me the next time anything happens like this again. And my child glared at me the entire way home. I was like what exactly did you expect me to do besides that?

MARTIN: Wow. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about bullying and how parents can encourage their children to speak up. My guests are Rosalind Wiseman, that's who was just speaking just now. She's author of "Queen Bees and Wannabees," that bestseller that was later the basis for the movie "Mean Girls." She's a mom of two.

Also with us, Jolene Ivey, one of our regular contributors, mom of five, and a state lawmaker, who has actually worked on this issue as a matter of policy. And Jean Cheese is a mother of four boys, including 15-year-old Aaron, who spoke to us last week about being bullied in school. He was featured in the Cartoon Network documentary called "Stop Bullying: Speak Up."

So Jean, I understand that your son's experience changed the way you think about bullying. And talk a little bit about that, if you would.

CHEESE: Sure. First let me just say in context that I for me, when I thought of bullying I thought of somebody beat me up, somebody pushed me, somebody really treated me in a way that was physically impactful. And I don't know that I register the whole way that bullying can be hurtful in a nonphysical sense. And I think as a mom of boys, one of my immediate reactions and certainly my husband's is, you know, man up. You know, what he means somebody said something to you - just walk away and not really stopping to pause. You know, when you have a whole bunch of children you live in crazy.

And so, if somebody had said some of the things that were said to Aaron to my oldest he would've just looked at them like they were crazy and walked away. You know, my youngest child might have just, you know, knocked them out. You know, I'd be coming to get him for having bullied somebody. But knowing how Aaron is and knowing, and now seeing back, when I reflect back to some of the comments he made like well, I didn't get to play this game or somebody said something about this or mom, can I get some cooler clothes? You know, that at the moment it just seemed completely out of context. I was like, what are you talking about, can you get cooler clothes? What's wrong with the close I buy you? You know, not realizing that it was an indication of something bigger going on. And I will always carry the guilt that I didn't pick up on some of the cues and clues that were out there. But it has really been a powerful experience for him. And I do think that on the having overcome it he's all the more stronger, but it's a transformation that I wish he didn't have to happen this way.

MARTIN: Mm. I understand completely what you're saying. And this isn't our job but I think we've all experienced the guilt of feeling that we didn't do as much as we could do for our children. I think that we'll give you the collective absolutions since, if it's OK.


CHEESE: Well, I appreciate that.

MARTIN: Since we all lay hands on you from a distance. But...

CHEESE: Thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: Jolene, what are some of the things that you...

IVEY: He was...

MARTIN: I'm not calling names here because you've got five...

IVEY: Right. Right. Right.

MARTIN: ...and I'm sure you don't want to have helped him we live the experience. But what was some of the clues that if you had to do over again or something you would have done differently?

IVEY: Well, he was just generally unhappy. He read all the time, which sounds a good thing, except for I'm talking through lunch, through the bus ride, through anything, through recess - like in sixth grade when he still had recess. And then, you know, you start asking questions because I'd been through it myself so I could know to ask the right questions. And when I realized what was happening it was about halfway through the school year.

Now the only thing that I'm grateful for, back then, the whole Facebook thing hadn't really, you know, become a big deal in my kid's life. Today, if you had the same situation, I'm sure there would be whole Facebook pages set up to harassing my kid. And I'm sure that that's happening to kids all over the country.

MARTIN: Sure. But Rosalind Wiseman, you have so much experience with this, both working as a nonprofit and as a teacher and so forth. What are some of the things that parents can do to tap into this issue, because hear these, you've got a group of parents who are all very aware, very involved with their kids, and they still missed these signs. What are the some of the things that you observed over time that would help parents kind of stay connected on this issue?

WISEMAN: Well, I think having your kids see you role model behavior of dignity when it's hard, when you're upset, when you want to confront somebody but you don't want to and you're nervous about it, when you are having moments where abuse of power is coming on to you. I think it's really important for kids to see how you handle that.

MARTIN: What's just the best piece of advice that you can leave parents with?

WISEMAN: Well, I think that lots of times parents will say to their kids when they hear anything about this they'll say something like just ignore it, just walk away, just be the better person, you know, all of these kinds of messages, and those messages do not work. So it is really important to be able to say OK, let's think about what are the qualities of an adult that we would go to that we think we've assessed as a good advocate for ourselves.

MARTIN: What if your child is on the other end of that transaction, as you pointed out earlier, if you find out that your child is the one who's being the bully?

WISEMAN: Sure. Sure. Well, I also want people to realize in the vast majority of cases that I deal with the kids who are bullies do not think they are bullies. They think that something has happened to them that has justified their behavior or they completely minimize their behavior. So to Aaron's, you know, experience, we're just teasing. He can't deal with it. Whatever. It doesn't matter what they think about their own behavior. If Aaron doesn't like it, Aaron doesn't like it. That's the end of the, that's the end of what the problem is.

If you've got the call that your kid has been a bully, I want to focus on the fact that that doesn't mean your child is a bully for the rest of their life. It means in this moment that you have an opportunity to show your child what being held accountable really looks like. And yes, there could have been things that have happened to them, yes, it probably could be a two-way street, but they have to take responsibility for what they did.

But the biggest thing that parents need to do all around these issues with a bully is to say to them OK, we've had this conversation right now. If the life of the target becomes more difficult as a result of the conversation we are having right now, we are in a whole different level of consequence. Because that stops your child hopefully, from going to a friend in saying now you go make this child's life miserable.

MARTIN: Jean, I'm going to give you the final word. How do you feel now?

CHEESE: I actually feel very good about this. I feel like, you know, Aaron having come out and making his comment about what he experienced and the documentary itself, and having the conversation out there is putting it in the mindset so that people like me who missed some of the cues or where their kids are not talking about it, I think this is a great dialogue that needs to happen. And if I could say one point, which is that absolutely the part about dignity because I'm known sometimes as the mom who charges in to rescue my children...


CHEESE: ....and not necessarily stop to think how would he want me to handle it. And that may have been part of the reason why he was reserved in coming to me. So I really think, you know, in saying in that trust level of if you share with me then we together will identify a plan for moving forward is a way to really assure children will feel more comfortable in sharing their feelings about it so that it can end.

MARTIN: Jean Cheese is a mom of four boys. One of her sons Aaron was featured in the Cartoon Network documentary, "Stop Bullying: Speak Up." It premiered this weekend on the Cartoon Network. She was kind enough to join from member station WCLK in Atlanta. Rosalind Wiseman was an adviser to the Cartoon Network on the documentary. She's the author of the bestseller "Queen Bees and Wannabees." She's also the mom of two. Jolene Ivey is also with us. She's one of our regular contributors to our Parenting roundtable. She's the co-founder of a parenting support group and a Maryland state lawmaker and the mother of five boys. And Jolene and Rosalind were here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

I thank you all so much.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

WISEMAN: My pleasure.

CHEESE: Thank you.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.