Sabeen Islam

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Bullying. Even the word itself sounds ugly, probably because that is exactly what it is. Ugly. It is such a vast and endless topic, rooting from so many different places and taking on countless shapes and forms. But that shouldn’t stop us from talking about it because bullying cannot and should not be sugar coated or brushed under the rug. It is something I personally feel strongly about having been through it myself - both as a child and as the mother of a child being bullied - and the way it made me feel and how, till this day, I carry it with me is testament to the fact that it is no joking matter to be taken lightly no matter how small your child is.

“Why do you have a moustache? Hey, Jessica, look, look…Sabeen has a moustache.…ha ha ha ha”. Being a brown (and unfortunately hairy) kid in a predominantly white classroom, this is just one example of what I would get to hear on a regular basis. I was 6 years old. At 6, you imagine kids to be carefree, non-judgmental, only concerned about having fun and playing. Yet, here I was wondering, wishing, praying to have lighter skin, hairless arms and legs (or at least make the hair blonde, God, please!!), and to just be accepted without feeling self-conscious. If you look at my school photo from Grade 1, you will see the bright smile and the cute pink dress, but you will also see if you look closely, how I have strategically placed my arms in a way that the underside of my arms where the hair isn’t as visible is in view. So is the mustache which I could, unfortunately, not figure out how to hide.

It was a lot of weight for a 6 year old to be carrying and neither my teachers nor my parents were aware of it. Comments like this were usually passed when the teacher was out of earshot or on the playground and at such a young age, I just didn’t have the maturity or words to communicate how I felt to my parents either. It wasn’t something that we were made to be aware of in school or at home. Again, I feel the concept of sugar-coating was big back when I was growing up to give the impression that everything is always perfect. School is great, our family dynamic is fantastic. We are always happy and there were never any problems! Difficult conversations or emotions just weren’t discussed.

Fast forward some 26 years later, and there I am, mother to a 4 and 2 year old, still super self-critical when I look in the mirror, still low on confidence and self-esteem. Why? Because I may have pushed all those words and feelings somewhere to the back of my mind, but I was still carrying the weight of it with me. I had become so good over the years of covering up those scars that they had become almost invisible.

It wasn’t until, one regular Wednesday afternoon as I went to pick up my 4 year old from school, I was very gently informed by school management that there was a concerning situation in which it had been observed that he was being bullied by a child in his class who would call him “Potty Ammar” and laugh about it while the other kids (out of sheer fun rather than ill intentions) would chime in, and also how this child would shove him around. My son would keep his head low and stay quiet throughout. They felt that I needed to know so that we could address it and I could also address it with my son at home.

I felt like I was hit by a ton of bricks. All the cover-ups and layers of concealment on my emotional scars were ripped away at that moment and each scar I bore screamed. I was back in that playground - 6 years old again, hearing the laughs and snickers of the kids, and feeling all those same, horrible feelings - shame, embarrassment, fear, and most of all…anger.

Paired with anger, though, came confusion. How could someone dare to pick on my little, innocent 3 year old son? Was that even possible? These kids are too young to understand any of this! Bullying…in Preschool? I thought I still had some more time before I would have to start worrying about all this.

More than anything else, however, I knew deep within me that I wasn’t going to let this go. I would make sure that this was collectively resolved – not just for my child, but also for the little boy who was bullying him. He shouldn’t be carrying that label from such a young age. I had a conversation with the school management and class teachers, first and foremost, because keeping that partnership solid and transparent is the only way to create that safe space for your child. They took the responsibility of addressing this in the classroom beautifully over the span of the term and continued having those conversations with the children.

Beyond that, I needed to do some soul-searching myself. I took some time to reflect to make sure that I wasn’t blurring lines or mixing my story with his. This child was not those kids from 25 years ago, my son was not me – this was his own experience and I couldn’t let mine taint his. That myriad of emotions I felt when I first heard he was being bullied, those needed to be regulated so that my anxieties and feelings didn’t rub off on my child. Next, I just started talking a lot to my son. I realized I hadn’t been doing that. He was only 4 after all, so I guess it never occurred to me. I talked to him, shared things with him, got him to help me out with things at home – this made him feel more confident in his abilities and help in building that sense of security. I asked a lot of open-ended questions and I really started getting to “know” him then – his likes, dislikes, what he finds interesting. It helped me form a deeper connection with him which I felt was necessary to inculcate trust and safety.

I’m sharing my story with you because I want you, as a parent, to be aware that yes, bullying very much does happen among kids as young as 3 or 4 and we must take it seriously. It is important to note, not all aggression is bullying at this age. Some preschoolers are aggressive because they haven’t yet learned the right language and social skills. However, if a child is deliberately and repeatedly doing and saying unkind things while pinpointing or targeting certain kids, it is considered as bullying. I am forever grateful to the school to notice, observe, inform me, and work with me to tackle the situation before it got any worse. I shudder to think of how it could have broken my child and also the child who was being the bully, if it had progressed further.

It’s a harsh world we live in, but on the flip side, it is also a beautiful one. It is up to us to create environments, spaces, and relationships built upon love, support, tolerance, and acceptance. It is also up to us to continue this conversation as parents and teachers. When we do this for ourselves and our children, even when faced with difficulty, we will have the confidence and ability to cope with it.