Dear Dr. Debbie,
My 2nd grader got in trouble at school today for laughing at a classmate who fell off her chair. His teacher called to tell me about it. When I confronted him with this information, he denied it and said it was all the other kids who were laughing.
I have also told my kids that you should laugh at yourself if you fall and you’re not hurt. I’ll ask, “Are you okay? Yes? Then it’s funny that you fell. Laugh it off.” Then I laugh to encourage them to get over it and not expect a lot of sympathy. Maybe that’s what he was doing (if he actually did laugh). How should I pursue this or should I let it go?
Not a Witness but Wanting to Do the Right Thing
Don’t miss last week’s column Car legislation to protect young children — Good Parenting
Dear Not a Witness,
There are many unknowns here. How credible is the teacher’s account versus your son’s? If there is a pattern of false accusations from the teacher, you may want to tap the school counselor to address this. Does your son have positive ways of getting attention from other children in the class? Again, the school counselor is the best resource for adjusting the social climate at school. How strong is your son’s friendship with the girl who fell? One “earns” the right to laugh at someone (preferably if they are laughing too), otherwise, particularly in front of others, it is cruel.
I Didn’t Do It
It is natural for a child to deny wrongdoing, especially between the ages of 4 and 7. The noble course of admitting wrong, showing heartfelt remorse, and seeking to make things right is probably beyond his 7 years.
At this age, a normally developing child has the ability to imagine that, because of his actions, others think better or worse of him. He prefers, of course, to be thought better of. Therefore the truth is whatever will keep him in the best light. Conversely, admitting guilt could be evidence that he doesn’t realize how his actions were harmful, or that, alarmingly, he doesn’t care.
It’s best to gloss over who is telling the truth — he or the teacher – and find teachable moments to guide him toward being empathic toward others. Similarly, let your son see how you and his teachers are in frequent communication as a team working on his behalf. Hopefully this teacher calls to report good things, too, in which case be sure to mention, “I heard what a great help you were to the new student today.”
Teachers appreciate quick and friendly notes from parents; and teachers who value this partnership take the time to respond. Being a parent volunteer is another way for your children’s teachers to get to know you and to see that you support their work. Children can’t use, “She’s lying” if you and a teacher are solid buddies.
Teasing or bullying is often about status, albeit a wayward approach to achieving it. Social status in a second grade class is based on the value system of the peer group. Having friends is a seal of peer approval. The more friends you have, the more likely you are to be liked. (Or in the case of a bully, the more followers you have the more your power is feared.)
An astute elementary school teacher can quickly point out the more popular children versus the friendless. Children who have been together since kindergarten or longer have an advantage of having more chances to make friends among their classmates, adding to their status. Other qualities children will name about their friends and potential friends include: they’re easy to find when you need someone to play with; they play fairly; they share; they’re fun; they enjoy similar interests; they’re knowledgeable or skillful and therefore helpful; they have cultural similarities such as language, clothing/hairstyles, or foods; and they may have an “enemy” in common. (This last attribute can give rise to bullies and cliques if adults aren’t paying attention.)
It’s possible that your son, if he was laughing, was seeking peer approval by drawing attention to the girl’s clumsiness and trying to get others to laugh too. Once again, the guidance counselor can be a climate changer, working on raising your son’s social status, through positive means, in consultation with the teacher.
There are many ways that adults can shape a child’s popularity:
- Help him find successes every day to build his self-confidence.
- Subtly showcase the talents and interests he has which could bring positive attention from his peers.
- Partner him with a socially competent classmate so the other children see him being socially successful.
- Group him with other children who share a common outside interest.
Laughing at oneself is one thing, however laughing at someone else is tricky. Maybe in your family there is a strong sense of loving one another no matter what, and regular demonstrations of unquestionable support. However, laughing at a fallen classmate — whether or not she is physically hurt — could feel to the classmate and look to the teacher like ridicule. On the other hand, the teacher herself may have been reacting to a disruption of classroom decorum rather than a lapse in sensitivity. Closer involvement on your part will help you decide if this is the case.
In any event, children can and should be taught to be empathic. (Since we may never know what really happened, it would be pointless to press for an apology to either the teacher or the fellow student.)
The Making Caring Common Project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education has five behaviors that parents can practice with their children through family-based exercises. Among them are helping children to recognize and manage their own emotions, modeling empathy, and drawing your children into acts of concern that you carry out for others.
Such real life lessons will equip children for more compassionate responses to the difficulties of others, and even to give heartfelt apologies when they err.
Unless he brings it up, drop any further direct discussion of the incident but use teachable moments to reinforce the social values you hope to impart to your son.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.