I’ve just returned from a three month internship in Washington, DC and the fall quarter is looming on the horizon. The US is contemplating action in Syria, which is an unbelievable humanitarian crisis. There are many things I could choose to blog about at this point in time, but instead, I feel compelled to blog about something much closer to home and to my heart. Bear with me, I promise I will connect it to my human rights degree.
My twin daughters are 8 and are as different as night and day. Anneliese is very confident, competitive and yes, stubborn. She has a much easier time letting things roll off her back, and if it really bothers her, she isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. Elena on the other hand, is very sensitive, empathetic, creative and joyful. She wants everybody around her to be happy and works hard to make that happen, sometimes at the expense of taking care of herself. It isn’t nearly as easy for her to ignore mean comments.
My daughters are definitely “Daddy’s girls” to some extent, but there are things that they only share with me. Since they were just able to talk I have usually made a habit of laying down with each one of them at bedtime. We talk about our days, what was good, what wasn’t so good. I’ll read to them, or more frequently, tell them a story I made up one night because I was too lazy to get a book and now they always ask for it. The other night Elena told me she was being bullied.
No parent wants to hear this from their child. I was bullied as a kid, but back then, they didn’t call it that. My parents didn’t have a lot of money so we wore hand-me-downs that were usually a year out of style. My parents also refused to let us wear jeans. In a small parochial school, it wasn’t hard to stand out as the one that was different somehow. So when Elena told me this, my heart broke.
She had been bullied last year too by a little boy who eventually started to get physical. I was very proud of my daughter for handling it so well. She tried numerous times to walk away. Even though she has been in kung fu since she was 5, she didn’t hit back. Anneliese most likely would have decked the kid. No, Elena went and told an adult like she was supposed to and the school actually took it seriously and did their job.
One thing I should explain about Elena is that she has quite severe ADHD. I can already hear some of you saying how she probably doesn’t really have it, it gets over-diagnosed by pediatricians, or that if we just changed her diet, or gave this or that she would be fine. None of that is true. We took her to a specialist to have her diagnosed. Part of her testing was a timed computerized test. She failed to finish it twice because she was much too busy watching the squirrel out the window. We tried changing her diet, we tried lots of things. Ultimately, her ADHD was interfering with school to the point where she wasn’t going to get anything out of it and we opted to put her on medication. While it has helped, she still has off days. She has had some wonderful teachers that have worked with her to give her extra time to finish her in-class assignments. But, kids will be kids, and she has been teased relentlessly for not being able to finish her assignments in class.
But this last incident wasn’t a little boy and it wasn’t the class teasing her for not being able to finish her in-class assignments. No, it was another girl. Girls can be the meanest. This particular one told my daughter she didn’t want to be friends with her because she didn’t wear nice enough clothes and was “weird”. My children don’t wear out of date hand me downs, but I am also not about to pay $40 or more for a shirt or pair of pants they will just grow out of in three months anyway. Ever the optimist, Elena’s response was that she was just going to have to show this girl how fashionable she could be. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I didn’t think that would make any difference. I’m guessing the “weird” comment has to do with Elena’s ADHD as my husband decided to take her completely off medication while I was in DC.
First, let me say that I am proud of my daughter for recognizing that what this little girl was doing to her was bullying. And I am proud of her for managing to stay mostly happy despite this girl’s comments and teasing. As a parent, I am naturally protective and sad for Elena. I told her that the girl probably says these things to her because she doesn’t feel good about herself and the way she makes herself feel better is to put other people down. I tell Elena she deserves friends who love and respect her for who she is. I tell her that not everybody will like her, but that is OK. But what I don’t tell her is how angry I am.
You see, this girl didn’t develop this attitude toward others in a vacuum. Even if her parents don’t say such things outright, they are teaching her by their example. And I have a problem with this, not just because of the pain and sometimes suicides that such attitudes cause, but also because this girl and her parents are part of the problem the world has with respecting human rights.
That may seem like a big leap for some of you, but it really isn’t. People that abuse others human rights, that torture, that commit genocide are able to do so precisely because they see their victims as “other”. They are able to view their victims as “other” based on ethnicity, political affiliation, socioeconomic status, religion and a whole host of other things. As soon as they see a person as different from them, as “other”, it becomes easier to also think of them as “less than”. And once started down the slippery slope of “less than”, it isn’t far to “less than human”.
So what does this have to do with my daughter? Somehow, the parents of the little girl bullying my daughter have come to see people like my daughter as “other”. In this case, apparently based on fashion which I assume they use as a proxy for socioeconomic status. And in seeing people like my daughter as “other”, they have also determined that she is somehow “less than” them. I’m not suggesting that these parents will go out and torture someone. They may be prone to discrimination against certain classes of people, they may not. I don’t know them, just as they don’t know me or my daughter. If they did, they might know that my husband is a highly sought after computer specialist and that I have a Master’s and a Ph.D and I’m a year away from a second Master’s. But none of that is the point.
The point is that humans cannot fully realize their rights until everybody, or at least most people, respect those rights. In order to respect those rights they need to respect “others”, even if they are different, and not view them as “less than”. I’m sure if I were to ask those parents if they believed in human rights and respected them, they would say yes. But how can we really claim to respect the rights of others if we are still capable of seeing those different from us as “other” and “less than”? Those parents are teaching their daughter that it is OK to see somebody as somehow less than her and therefore not worthy of friendship and respect. In this case, it certainly is a first world problem, but it is indicative of the problem of respect for human rights as a whole. It may not seem like much, but we need to model this respect for all those future leaders who watch us. They are the ones that will have to make decisions that affect not only them, not just our country, but people living in far away places. It is disingenuous for us to preach respect for human rights to those abusing them if we can’t even show simple respect for someone who dresses a bit differently. It may not be much, but even a small drop in an ocean can cause ripples. And those ripples will spread. I for one, want to be that drop.