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Rosalind Wiseman: People ask me how I'll do anti-bullying work with a bully in the White House

Helping children deal with adult hypocrisy on bullying goes far beyond election results, she says

Editor’s Note: Rosalind Wiseman regularly writes about media literacy, bullying prevention and ethical leadership and is a frequent guest on CNN, NBC’s “Today”, “Good Morning America” and NPR affiliates. The views expressed here are her own, She is the author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World” – the best-selling book that was the basis for the movie “Mean Girls” – and “Owning Up: Empowering Adolescents to Confront Social Cruelty, Bullying, and Injustice,” a new curriculum for middle and high school students.

(CNN) —  

For 23 years I have worked to combat bullying in our country’s schools, and for every one of those years I’ve had to acknowledge to young people the hypocrisy of adults.

Adults who so often aren’t willing to do the same things they expect young people to do – like stand up to bullying. Adults who bemoan the problem of bullying between children but rarely admit when adults are bullies. Adults who abuse power, demand “respect” while disrespecting others and witness other adults’ abuse and do nothing to stop it.

Rosalind Wiseman
Rosalind Wiseman

The weeks immediately following the election have reminded me of all of this as I’ve listened to the experiences and worries of children, grandparents, teachers and parents. Since that day, I have spoken about creating cultures of dignity in Illinois, Iowa, Utah and Louisiana. I heard from a seventh-grade Hispanic girl in one community that other kids say to her, ‘I’ll miss you when you get shipped back to Mexico.” An eighth-grade girl reported that boys were grabbing girls’ breasts and laughing because Trump won the election.

I heard similar stories wherever I went. But what stopped me in my tracks was a grandmother in a Chicago suburb saying to me, “You’re an anti-bullying expert. Why would children listen to you now?”

Was that grandmother right – have people like me lost all credibility? Many school administrators also shared similar concerns. For instance: How do we show proper respect for our government and the office of president and acknowledge or explain the bad role-modeling children see and hear from the President-elect?

How do we acknowledge the hypocrisy? And not just from our President-elect, but also from other adults with political power or media platforms who encourage us to put the “past the behind us” by refusing to acknowledge the impact of these irresponsible actions or mock and dismiss the children who are targeted for abuse?

After deep reflection and listening to others (especially those who have different political viewpoints than mine), I believe that what’s important about dealing with this hypocrisy goes far beyond who won the election. Everyone who voted (and many who decided not to vote) had reasons for their decision and those reasons need to be acknowledged.

This is about the reality that young people feel unsafe. It is about young people feeling that they go to school with students who now feel empowered to target them. It is about admitting that it is wrong for adults to lecture kids about standing up to bullies when they aren’t willing to do so themselves.

Because contrary to what some claim, what our children are telling us about the increase in bigoted attacks isn’t made up or blown out of proportion. Truly, the question is how many children have to live in fear before adults believe that their experiences matter?

Assuring children’s feeling of safety and inclusion cannot become a political issue up for debate; it is our basic obligation to them.

Just as it is our obligation to teach young people that adults can be counted on to do right when it’s hard and our democracy is based on respectful self-expression and challenging those who would silence others. That our historical legacy is not just words in a book and dates to be memorized, but the story of a country struggling to uphold the belief that all people have inalienable rights. Knowing and respecting our laws and not abusing one’s power are core values that build and strengthen our communities and makes our children believe in our social contract.

So if we want a chance to create and maintain cultures of dignity in our communities, every parent and educator in this country should assume that there is a vocal minority that now feels empowered to target other children in “their” school for skin color, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or even the right to be in this country.

Therefore, it is every adult’s responsibility to say to the children in their care:

This is our community. This is our home. As your mom/dad/teacher/coach, I believe that no one should be put down or threatened because of their race, religion or where they come from. It wasn’t OK to target someone because of these things before this election and it’s not OK now. Every child has a right to be safe at school and, as Americans, it is our duty to uphold that right

And as your parent/teacher/coach, it’s my responsibility to do whatever I can to make sure that every child, including you, feels safe.

As I ended my latest round of travels this month I had the privilege to speak to over 10,000 high school students in Salt Lake City. Before I went on stage, I prayed for strength and guidance. As I concluded my speech 30 minutes later I was overwhelmed as they clapped, yelled and stamped their feet to show their support.

This is what I said to them. It bears repeating here.

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People often say young people are our future. I say young people are the present. This is your moment to claim ownership of your friendships, schools and communities. This is your moment to remind adults that our democracy rests on our ability to disagree without attacking each other.

Yes, people will try to silence you. Yes, some adults will hold you to standards that they aren’t willing to uphold in themselves. But there are many caring adults who will stand next to you as we repair our communities and uphold the dignity of all. It is time to do the work and I can’t wait to see what you will do.

Our children deserve to have us give them the best of ourselves – no matter what contradictions or hypocrisies they see around them. Nothing less will do.