Since the beginning of October, Community Education volunteers have been heading into sixth and eighth grade classrooms to facilitate Start Strong-domestic violence primary prevention programming lectures about bullying, violence in the home and healthy relationships. We have two forty five minute sessions to work with kids about recognizing and working through these issues. While I was originally nervous about heading into middle school classrooms, the dialogue I’ve encountered with these kids has been incredibly helpful and insightful.
We spend a lot of time talking with the kids during the day on bullying about “identity based insults”. Calling people “gay” or “retarded” or using racial or gender based slurs is fairly common in middle and high schools. In Start Strong we focus on how and why it is hurtful to use inherent physical or emotional characteristics of individuals as synonyms for insults. For example, calling something “gay” when you think they are stupid or strange, is hurtful to someone who identifies as gay or queer. One of the most interesting questions I’ve heard so far was from a girl in one of my classes who after we discussed using “retarded” as an insult, shared that she was born with a heart defect and wanted to know if that made her “retarded”. It opened the door for an interesting dialogue about why we make fun of certain disabilities but not others and how to try to use positive self-affirmation to work through insults from others.
I’ve also heard from the kids about how they navigate their way through dating relationships. Some boys have asked questions about what to do if their friends are the ones who are being abusive to partners, which shows really great promise for bystander intervention. We’ve also talked about how gender roles change as we get older. Many of the boys mentioned how girls get to hit them all the time and nothing happens but they can’t hit back. This comment opened the door for a really interesting conversation about gender privilege. While many girls teasingly hit boys (which does not make it right, we want to avoid all violence), this teasing-hitting looks very different than men who grow up to abuse women. We also got to have a great discussion on why boys might feel nervous or stupid reporting girls’ abusing them. Having these conversations early on about how to communicate with boyfriend’s and girlfriend’s and knowing when a partner is making you uncomfortable and nervous has a tremendous impact on individuals being able to know how to have healthy relationships in the future.
One of the other interesting things I’ve talked with the kids about is abuse in the home. Many of the kids want to know if spanking is “wrong” or “child abuse”. It’s been difficult to try to discuss the intricacies of child abuse in less than an hour especially when I have my own opinions about corporal punishment and children, but they are raising really great questions. They way I try and explain it to them is looking at the context of the spankings. Is it because you directly disobeyed a parent or is it because you made a mistake you couldn’t help? Looking at parental intentions for disciplinary actions is important. It’s also important that parents be able to talk with their kids about why they are angry or upset and let children know that it is the actions that parents are frustrated with, not the child herself.
The entire Start Strong program has been an incredible insightful and fulfilling project to work on. While I can imagine room for expansion beyond our 2 sessions, seeing these kids get at least an introduction to these issues is an important step in making our world a less violent, more inclusive place.