I was cruising the grocery store aisles with my son when I caught two boys lurking in my periphery and laughing. My stomach dropped. I knew what this was about. I had been here before. But rather than engage, I chose to round the corner and hide in the dairy aisle. Not my finest moment. It was raining and cold out and already past dinner time while I was still buying the necessary ingredients to get dinner on the table. I did not have the time or energy to be the advocate I needed to be. You see, my son has special needs. I am used to swimming upstream in the tide of normal. But on this occasion I just didn’t have it in me…until I ran into the two boys again with their mother among the produce. This time the laughter was accompanied with a side of pointing and whispers. I couldn’t let it go.

“Can you wave hi to these boys?” I asked my son, in the hopes that human interaction would diffuse the situation. He obliged, was his adorable four-year-old self, and accompanied the wave with a blown kiss, the extent of his language skills. They laughed harder. I turned to the mother, hoping she would encourage them to say hi or at least discipline them for the laughter. But she looked up from the summer squash, took in the scene and let out a nervous snicker. And then looked away. She refused to engage. I watched her boys watch her. They took her attitude for silent approval. My face burned with all the words I left unsaid as we walked away, leaving the battle for another day.

As a high school teacher, we all had to undergo bully training, both how to prevent and how to diffuse. I remember sitting in the auditorium staring at a diagram of the five participants in the bullying cycle. Did you know there’s more to it than the bully and the one being bullied? There’s also the reinforcers who don’t actively participate but laugh along and occasionally cheer on the bully. And there’s the silent participants, the outsiders who say nothing but still watch and encourage by their mere presence. Lastly, you have the advocates, the ones who take a stand and defend the defenseless. Once you know the cycle, it’s amazing to see how much goes in to both starting and stopping the behavior. More people participate that they would like to admit.

Whether that mother realized it or not, she was bullying my son. By simply bearing witness to the act and saying nothing, she fueled the fire. By laughing instead of facing the awkwardness, she sent a silent message to her children that their behavior was acceptable. It’s not always cyber bullying or stealing the little guy’s lunch money. The world can bully by its simple recognition and then neglect in the face of bad behavior. I plan to teach my younger children to be advocates for their older brother with special needs and for anyone who requires protection. What I realized that day in the grocery store was that we all need to know the roles we play in the bullying cycle. Even parents can be bullies in their silence. Choose to see the problem. Choose to be an advocate and help your children do the same.

Jamie Sumner

Jamie Sumner is the author of the middle-grade novel, Roll with It. Her second and third middle-grade novels with Atheneum Books for Young Readers will be coming out in 2020 and 2021. She is also the author of the nonfiction book on motherhood, Unboundand the forthcoming bookEat, Sleep, Save the Worldfor parents of children with special needs. She is also mom to a son with cerebral palsy and she writes and speaks about disability in literature. She loves stories that celebrate the grit and beauty in all kids. She and her family live in Nashville, Tennessee. Connect with her at Jamie-Sumner.com