(I wrote this essay over twelve years ago when we lived in Olathe, Ks-- but the subject (unfortunately) is still relevant.)
We are homeschoolers now. In the past our children have also attended Waldorf and Montessori schools. At ages five and nine, most of their social encounters thus far have been in environments that we have carefully selected. Most of their playmates have, like them, been somewhat sheltered from the media saturated mainstream world. As a result, they have had little exposure to the bullying that unfortunately, I hear has become so prevalent in the public schools. Until now.
My older daughter loves gymnastics. Her interest in this sport has taken her from the recreational classes that we started her in, to becoming a member of a competitive team. As is true for many parents of gymnasts, her gym has become my home away from home. While waiting during her practices I've had many lengthy discussions with the other parents. Although not quite friends, we have developed rather intimate "acquaintanceships" sharing much about our lives while waiting for the practices to end. Although there are some huge differences in our over all parenting philosophies and our lifestyle choices, I have found common ground in our love for our children, our struggles to do what we believe is best for them, and our concern with their moral and ethical growth. Last year, during my daughter's first year of competition, I began to have some concerns about the emerging group dynamic that was unfolding amongst her team, which at that time was composed of 7 to 10 year olds. It was obvious that our lifestyle of no-TV, lack of interest in current fashion, coupled with a family diet that omits most of what everyone else eats, was leaving her a little "out" of the group. It didn't help that the class in many ways lacked diversity. Furthermore, my discussions with the other parents left me with the impression that the local public schools were doing nothing to promote respect for differences. So I watched closely, believing that she was now old enough and strong enough to start finding her way in less nourishing environments. I tried to reassure myself that this environment would not be too harmful since she was only in it two hours a day. Plus, in my daughter's mind she was there not to socialize, but to do what she loved -- gymnastics.
Then things got worse.
One night as class ended, as soon as she saw me, she burst into tears. Apparently, one of the girls said she was deliberately going to keep my daughter from having her turn on the bars, by letting everyone else cut in front of her in line. The other girls then followed this child's lead by doing the same thing. In another instance, a different girl jumped onto the bar as soon as my daughter started her turn and screamed, "It's my turn" and pushed my daughter's hands off. Although there were numerous coaches in the gym at this time, apparently none of them was aware this was going on, and without witnessing it themselves, it was hard to address. As a result of my bringing it to the coaches attention, they talked with the kids about "working together as a team". They issued subtle threats for misbehavior. None of it appeared to be very effective. My husband and I continued to debrief our daughter after every practice, validate her feelings and discuss strategies for coping. Our daughter developed a facial tic and showed increasing levels of anxiety after her practices. We asked if she wanted to quit gymnastics. She did not. Finally the season ended, and most of the girls (including my daughter) were promoted to the next level.
About this time, I was starting to contemplate my options for increased involvement in what was going on. In discussions with the other parents, I learned that some of them considered this sort of behavior normal, or at least unavoidable, and therefore not in need of intervention. Others expressed concern -- mostly in the form of desiring assurance that their child was not involved. (I never revealed the names of the children my daughter had mentioned to the other parents, but rather kept it vague and said that I was under the impression that poor behavior was affecting the entire group.) I tried to interest the other team parents in a field trip for all of us with our children to a local children's museum called the "Peace Pavilion" on the other side of the city. The Pavilion's trained staff would guide the team through activities addressing peace, diversity, and compassion. Unfortunately, the parents of the other girls were all too busy to do this. I was unable to find even one other family who wanted to go to the Pavilion. Meanwhile being in the new level had improved things some. The skills were more demanding, the practices more consuming, plus having some new older girls in the mix had changed the dynamic a bit. My daughter was also experimenting with different ways to respond to some of the aggressiveness. The really overt bullying had not happened in a while, but I could still see the anxiety in my daughter's face when I picked her up after the practices. I knew that the issue needed to be addressed further.
Then our family attended a week long Natural Learning Rhythms Family Camp sponsored by Encompass. We came back inspired, and felt ready to immerse ourselves in whatever relationship challenges presented. So my husband and I decided to invite the entire gymnastics team of ten girls to our farm home for a team-building camp out. After speaking with her coach, we made up a flyer about the overnight. We invited everyone to go swimming, enjoy cooperative games, cooking together and camping out. The coach passed our flyer out to the girls at the end of one of the practices. I tried to make this as easy on the parents as possible -- I provided all the food, and did not require their presence. All they had to do was drop their child off with a sleeping bag and clothes. This time four families joined us. Including our daughter, that made five team members -- exactly half the team. It was unfortunate that the one child, Catherine, who had been the most challenging for my daughter to deal with was unable to attend. But half the team was a great start, and we went to work planning our event. As the children arrived we started out with a free swim until all the participants were there. Then we played a series of games, some garnered from the Peace Pavilion staff, others from books on cooperative games, or suggested by friends with experience in this area. The first game, called "The Magic Carpet" had all of us stand on one piece of 3 x 4 foot fabric and without talking, figure out how to turn the fabric over without anyone ever touching the concrete below. Our next game had us standing in a circle and holding hands in a totally random and crisscrossed way. Again without talking we had to figure out how to untangle ourselves -- without ever letting go of hands. This involved all of us stepping over and under other joined hands. Our third game had each participant sitting with a pile of ten different blocks identical to the pile of every other participant. We arranged a cardboard barricade that prevented everyone from viewing other's blocks. Then in turn, each child created a design out of the blocks and using words only, tried to explain it to the others who attempted to duplicate it exactly. All were free to ask and answer unlimited questions. When everyone thought they had it, the barricade was removed so all could see the results. We wrapped up this first segment with a game that had them working as a group to try and float a large rock using only some sticks, a plastic bag and a few miscellaneous bits of string and wire. After each game we used questions such as "How did you do it? What was the process? What was it like? What was most helpful? How did you communicate?" to stimulate a group discussion. All the children thoroughly enjoyed these games.
After a watermelon break, we put them into pairs of two (my five year old joined us to make an even six children) and had them interview each other to discover 5 things about them that were the same and five things that were different. Then each pair shared their findings with the whole group. This led to a discussion about differences, during which we asked questions like, "Is it ok to be different? What are some of the ways others have tried to make you feel that it is not ok to be different? What was that like? What could you do if you see a child being excluded because of a difference?"
One girl said that it was easy to think she could speak up with all of us talking about it like this, but she wasn't sure that if she was back in the gym and this happened that she would be able to speak up. So I asked if anyone else felt this way too. Some did and some didn't. So we further discussed how they could support each other in such a situation.
Then I concluded our discussion of differences by telling the girls that I wanted them to take what they had learned in these games, into the kitchen where we would further explore how they handle differences, by cooking some "different" foods. We went into my kitchen and I introduced them to tofu. First we made black olive penguins stuffed with a tofu filling. Then we made a chocolate silk pie from tofu. Then I had them help me prepare our dinner -- tacos made from seitan, instead of meat, and served with Soymage vegan cheese. We made popcorn and topped it with nutritional yeast and olive oil. I was quite surprised to learn that none of the children had ever seen a hot air popcorn popper before! Not every child loved every dish, but they all willingly tasted everything, and each found some new things that they really did like.
After dinner we swam again. As the sun was going down, we sat in the fire circle and I told them a carefully selected African tale that illustrated the importance of not excluding from our community those whose behavior bothers us. At this point my husband (not a late night guy) called it a day and went to bed. But I stayed with the girls and discussed the story. In the conversation that followed, one of the girls suggested that since exactly half the team was here, that each of those present pick a partner from those who were absent and share with them all that we had done on our camp out. Four of the girls had no problem calling out the name of girl to pair up with. But the fifth girl said, "Well who's left" Someone called out..."Catherine." "Well I don't want her." the girl said. "Me neither" the rest of the girls chimed in. To my surprise (and my daughter's) we discovered that the hostility that Catherine had exhibited towards my daughter (and which she had thus far believed Catherine was only directing towards her.) Was in fact being experienced by all the other girls (at least all the ones who were present) I allowed them to vent for awhile before attempting to redirect the conversation with questions such as, "Why do you suppose she does that?" "How does it make you feel?" "What do you do when she says these things?" (Most of them had been simply trying to ignore Catherine's anger and burying their own hurt feelings.) "Is there a way to respond to Catherine that won't make her feel more left out, yet will bring out into the open that she is being unkind?" "How can you help each other respond to her kindly, yet firmly let her know that it is not ok to behave that way?"
After the discussion, we switched gears and got out some Mehndi and applied tattoos to each girl (I had secured prior permission from all their parents beforehand) This served as a final bonding experience for the night. I was also hoping that for the few weeks these tattoos remained on their skin, they might serve as a reminder of what they had discovered in our time together. Although it was late, we returned to the kitchen once more for some late night snacking on the dinner leftovers. After midnight, I was starting to feel very tired, yet I hated to bring our activities to a close. It seemed like a magic atmosphere of trust and openness had been created and I feared that it might not still be there in the morning. But finally I knew that we all must sleep. It took over another hour after we settled into our sleeping bags in the tent (along with repeated requests for the girls to please whisper instead of talking) before we all fell asleep. When the sun came up I was the only one awake and slipped into the house to prepare breakfast. At breakfast, there was a different mood from the night before. I wondered if they were just sleep deprived or perhaps had their guard back up in preparation for returning to their usual environments.
After breakfast the girls helped us clean up and we went for one last swim before their parents arrived. During the swim we experienced our first and only conflict. Interestingly it was a situation that had often happened during their gymnastics practices. My daughter came to me, choking back tears and described how they had all decided to go down the slide. As the girls climbed out of the pool and ran for the ladder, one called out, "I'm first" and another, "I'm second" and so forth. However instead of calling out for a position, my daughter had actually gotten to the ladder second and jumped into line...then the other girls proceeded to cut in front of her feeling that their calling out a position superceded the forming line. With my daughter's permission, I called all the girls over and shared what she had just told me. Then I asked if this had ever happened to any of them at other times. They all said that it had. When I asked how they felt about it, two of them said it was no big deal, but three including my daughter said that they felt hurt and that it didn't seem fair. So I pointed out that there was a problem -- since a number of them were feeling hurt. Then I asked all the girls to tell me what they thought was most fair in this type of situation, and they all agreed that the line should form based upon the order in which the children arrived in the line.
As the girls left with their parents, I thanked each for her part in making the camp out such a great experience for all of us. And it was great for all of us. My husband and I noticed an increased feeling of peace in ourselves and in our interactions with our children. In Natural Learning Rhythms they refer to this as "Dancing with your children" and suggest that in helping them resolve their relationship issues, we also heal ourselves of emotional hurts that we sustained at developmentally similar points in our own childhoods.
At gymnastics practice the following week my daughter reported some changes. The five girls who had been to our home she said acted like..."friends" at the practice instead of as she put it, "only like teammates" The other five girls she said acted like they always had, which my daughter now observed to be somewhat reserved and like they were trying to keep a distance from everyone else. At one point the girls were paired up in twos on the balance beams and instructed to take turns practicing their routine. My daughter was paired up with Catherine, who she said was in the "worst mood ever." Yet for the first time, my daughter was able to calmly stand her ground as Catherine growled at her. "Get off my beam!" by replying, "No Catherine, the coach put us both up here and we are to to take turns." Catherine became more incensed at my daughter's reply -- so much so that when it was her turn, she simply stood on the edge with her arms folded and a frown on her face. In response, my daughter said, "Well if you are not going to go, then I will take another turn." And she did. Most remarkable was the fact that as my daughter reported this to me, her face looked calm, with no anxious facial tics. It was clear that for her, there had been a huge shift. She also told me that one of the girls who had been at the camp out told her, "I had no idea that YOU felt like Catherine was mostly angry at you too. That was how I felt!"
I have no idea if or how much our overnight will shift the group dynamic long term. My experiences thus far in life with changing relationship patterns suggests that this is never a "hit and run" sort of process, but rather something that you must remain willing to address as the need arises. But I am hoping that we have planted a seed. I am expecting that down the road, we will offer them a team-building camp out again, and my hope is, that after word gets around about this one, that all the girls on the team will attend.