September 23, 2011

Hazing: A Parent’s Perspective

Teasing….putdowns….bullying….hazing…..bystander…..victim. We hear these words a lot. We hear them on the news. We talk about it as part of Chapter Leadership Development, in our education programs, and at conferences devoted to wiping out hazing and empowering students. We wonder how the heck such smart young adults perpetrate these acts on people that they call “brother” or “sister.” It is pretty disgusting to break hazing down into the bits that make it whole. How can organizations that pride themselves on values and ritual encourage or force someone have to drink, get locked in a basement, carry lunch boxes filled with breath mints, gum, Starbucks gift cards, etc.? It is terrifying to think that twenty year olds are doing this to their peers.

This summer I had the privilege of attending the Novak Institute for Hazing Prevention at Lehigh University with several of my Alpha Phi sisters. I had the honor of meeting and listening to Kim Novak challenge us to think about what a hazing-free world looks like. At that point, I wasn’t just thinking about the collegiate world in which I actively volunteer, but about another world in which I am a parent who is trying to raise decent human beings amidst teasing, putdowns and bullying. This is the typical world of elementary and middle school age children in my town. No one would equate what is happening on the playground with fraternity/sorority life, but is it really so different? I think parents are afraid to acknowledge that the child who is just a little too rough, a little too mean, a little too quick to show off how cool s/he is, is a bully and without some kind of intervention, this bully could most likely grow up to be a college student who hazes.

The world of the playground is pretty similar to any other world- college, athletics, and/or the workplace. My friends and I continue to talk about the same situation over and over despite the age differences in our children. There is one boy and he is the boy with “it.” What is “it”? Well in the eyes of a preteen, “it” is defined as: athletic, cool games/gadgets, laxer rules at home than the other children, typically have older brothers/cousins/friends and all the grown-ups like him because of his nice manners. The “it” boy is generally fast literally and figuratively. He has the meanest putdowns out of anyone in the pack. So, when the “it” boy decides he is going to start giving everyone nicknames, what can your child do? If your child protests his name too much, he will be branded a wuss and then “EVERYONE” will laugh at him. Most likely though, “EVERYONE” doesn’t like their nickname either. But “EVERYONE” sits quietly waiting for someone to defy the “it” boy. To an adult, it seems that the solution would be that the pack of boys would turn against the “it” boy. However, it never seems to happen that way. Why not?? Generally, the meanest child is the one with the most social collateral. The other children’s are simply afraid of the consequences. In a smaller town, you may be stuck with the “it” kid until after high school.

As I type this, it seems like I’m painting such a grim and hopeless picture, but I haven’t given up hope. Schools are working hard to address this kind of pervasive bullying. Most parents are coaching their children to talk them through these situations. We have better resources and talking points available than just the time-worn “walk away.” We also know that if the playground isn’t giving our children confidence, then we need to find other arenas where they will be successful. These out of school options include scouts, sports, creative and performing arts, and martial arts. I know of one child in particular who was picked on last year. He was the oldest and biggest boy in his grade. He was teased about everything. His parents and the school tried to work through it. What his classmates didn’t know was that he is a baseball prodigy. In the lead up to playing the “it” boy’s team, this boy was teased endlessly. The game was pretty exciting and intense. The “it” boy’s team was ahead by three when the baseball prodigy stepped up to the plate with bases loaded. Yes, this story has the movie ending. Our prodigy hit a grand slam and “it” boy was reduced to tears. Has this silenced the bully? That baseball game ended the teasing of this prodigy’. The teachers made sure this boy wasn’t in class with the “it” boy this year. In the long run, this group of boys also realized that an “it” boy isn’t always as powerful as they think he is.

What is the lesson for us parents? We need to remember that teasing is as dangerous as hazing. Teasing can hurt our young children just as much as hazing can hurt our college students. We need to give our children/college students realistic and authentic ways to handle these situations. We can teach that there is strength in numbers and that they don’t have to stand alone. Our mission as Alpha Phis is “A sisterhood of women supporting each other in lifelong achievement.” Isn’t this also our mission as parents?

Nancy DeLaura, (Villanova/Eta Epsilon) is the Operations & Programming Coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic Region.

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