Issues in Our Nation: Dealing With Differences

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

How Can We All Fit In?

The tragedy at a high school in Littleton, Colorado, on April 10, 1999 was a rare and horrifying event. Experts are still working to figure out what was in the minds of the students who killed a teacher and / of their classmates. Some have said the two young men were outcasts, that they didn't feel like they belonged. They formed their own group, which is something people, both young and old, do every day. But this is not a justification for violence and should not have lead to any deaths.

Forming groups of friends is normal, say child psychologists and Scholastic advisers Adele Brodkin from Florham Park, New Jersey, and Phyllis Cohen from New York City. Nothing was normal about the Colorado incident. Our experts offer advice on how to deal with everyday difficult social situations in school. These are common occurrences that they stress should not be confused with what happened at Columbine High School.

Facing difficult situations as a young adult is part of growing up. Problems like these should never be solved with violence.

Q: Some kids at my school are scary. What should I do?
A: Talk it over with adults whom you trust, both within the school and in your family, not just to express your feelings, but to come up with some way to get control of the situation. You may have reason to be afraid, but you may not. If you're afraid because kids are carrying knives or guns or threatening other people, or you just get a creepy feeling, trust that feeling and try to make adults aware of it. Ask other people if they feel the same way. Don't conclude that you're a weakling and should just get over it.

Q: Whom should I tell?
A: You know best who is interested, who listens to kids, and who will trust what you have to say. Go to an adult you feel is there to protect you.

Q: Why should I talk to others?
A: A responsible adult can help you express your concerns and can act on behalf of those concerns.

Q: I have been picked on, too. Why might kids taunt, or make fun of me?
A: If you cry a lot or act weak and helpless, it may remind kids of their own weaknesses. They criticize those weaknesses in you to make themselves feel stronger. Someone you trust can help you see yourself through different eyes. This person may make suggestions to inspire you to change your behavior. For example, maybe you're being ignored because you sit by yourself all the time. Try sitting with a small group of people for a few days. It may help. At times, people may be taunted about something over which they have no control, like a physical characteristic. Kids tend to pick on the things about you that may be different, like a big nose, or buck teeth. If you don't let them see that it hurts you, they are more likely to stop (see below).

Q: Where does such meanness come from?
A: We all have negative feelings that are often brought out when you are frightened or angry. You should discuss your feelings with the person who is upsetting you or with a friend who is not involved. These feelings should always be dealt with through words and not violence.

There is never an excuse for a violent act. There is no excuse or apology for what happened in Littleton. What happened there should never be confused with more common situations where kids feel left out or picked on.

Q: Should I expect to get along with everyone all the time?
A: Not everyone will be friends with everyone, and not everyone likes everyone equally. We can, however, expect respect and decent behavior from everyone. You don't have to be friends, go to the movies together, or walk hand-in-hand, but you also should not taunt or harass someone because he or she is different from you.

Be Different, Be Proud

Last year, one of Michaela Clovis's classmates insulted her hair. "She said it doesn't look right and doesn't match my skin," says Michaela of New Jersey.

Michaela is Irish, German, Native American, and African-American. She has fair skin and strawberry-blonde hair, but she is not white.

Soon, a few classmates joined the teasing. One said she couldn't be black and white at the same time. Michaela said she felt "small and alone." But she stopped the taunting without anger or frustration.

First she talked to her parents. Her mother, Donna, told the teacher and also suggested that Michaela not face the insults alone.

Next, she told her daughter about the different people in her family, and their love for each other. She taught her that people of all races are beautiful. That helped Michaela grow more confident. The next time she was teased, Michaela said, "I know that I'm mixed, and I'm proud of it." She stuck to that answer until the teasing finally ended.

Child psychotherapist and Scholastic adviser Phyllis L. Cohen of New York City says Michaela and her mother took the right approach. "Kids respect other kids who just own their differences," she says. "Say things like, 'Tell it to somebody who cares, I don't.'"

Michaela's advice for other kids who face ridicule: "Say, 'If you have a problem with me, that's your problem and I don't want to know about it.'"

It worked for her!

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  • Subjects:
    Social Studies, Character and Values, Life Experiences