When I was growing up, I was a sensitive, overweight kid who cared way too much about what people thought about me. This was a recipe for disaster for a boy growing up in suburban Los Angeles, where appearances are important and being different makes you the target of scorn by your peers.
By the time I hit puberty, I'd grown out of my chubbiness, but the damage was done. To this day, I still carry the scars from the name calling that I experienced as a child. Children don't realize how hurtful and cruel their comments can be, even if they may seem innocuous to others.
The scary thing is, with the prevalence of the internet and social media, the climate of meanness has moved up to a whole new level, and kids face challenges that I never imagined. The easy access and anonymity of digital communication seems to embolden kids to be especially cruel in their attacks, displaying a callousness that strikes me as extreme. Factor in the lack of social skills that stem from an absence of personal interaction, as well as the "viral" quality of group dynamics, and the situation can lead to tragedy.
The fact that modern bullying can lead to young children taking their own lives is unconscionable. While it is easy to blame our schools when such tragedies occur, learning to accept people for who they are must begin at home. National No Name Calling Week (January 19-23) is a good place to begin.
National No Name Calling Week was in fact inspired by the book The Misfits, a story about five kids who are targeted for their various idiosyncrasies. Instead of bowing down, they band together and overcome their situation. The story is an inspiring one and should encourage parents to teach their kids to be accepting of every person's individuality and to understand how hurtful name calling can be.
So with this in mind, here are 10 ways to help embrace no name calling not just for the week in question, but every day of the year.
1. Teach empathy.
Empathy is about understanding and appreciating how others are affected by our actions, and is a process of learning that the world is about more than just the self.
2. Diversify your circle of friends.
Having a diverse group of acquaintances makes life more interesting and teaches tolerance of being different.
3. Have more life experiences (i.e., turn off the TV).
Getting out and experiencing life teaches kids that the world is a big and wondrous place, and that people come in all shapes and sizes.
4. Get them to volunteer.
Helping others makes the world a better place, teaches compassion and selflessness, and exposes kids to a variety of experiences and people.
5. Eat different foods.
Food is a huge part of different cultures and can be a good first step in exposing kids to people who may look, talk, and eat differently than they do.
6. Talk to your kids.
Intolerance is a learned behaviors, so knowing that name calling is unacceptable must be taught and embraced continually.
7. Confront and dispel stereotypes.
Calling people who are different names is based on ignorance, and children need to be taught that despite our differences, people are, for the most part, all the same.
8. Teach kids self respect.
The act of targeting other people is often based on some level of self-loathing. Kids who respect themselves have less reason to be mean to others because they have bigger mountains to climb.
No experience allows a child (or an adult) to grow more than traveling. If possible, take your kids to places where people look and talk differently. The lessons learned are invaluable.
10. Set the right example.
Children will follow in their parent's footsteps, so tolerant and accepting adults will inspire the same in their children.
Let's get 2014 off to a good start by teaching our kids that name calling is not acceptable at any level and that all people are deserving of our empathy and respect.