99 Problems

Published on January 31st, 2014 | by Danielle Leshaw


Danielle Leshaw Says: NO BULLYING, OR NO SCHOOL

I am willing to homeschool my son.  He’s almost eleven and in fifth grade.  Right now, everything is fine.  He has, for the past several years of elementary school, reliably done his homework without prodding.  He seems to be a good friend and classroom citizen.  Occasionally, he forgets his lunch, but it’s generally because he’s so focused on the activities planned for the coming day – library, music, art class – that he just simply explodes with excitement and runs to the car.

And most days, he reports on happy experiences.  Sharing lunchbox treats in the cafeteria.  Riveting lectures on the importance of photosynthesis or field trips to the Ohio State Senate.  But it’s during his bedtime, when we’re snuggled nice and close, that he discusses complex social interactions, peer pressure, and a darker emotional world.  And sometimes he reports bullying, exclusion, and teasing.  And that kids call each other fags.  Or Nazis.  And he doesn’t know what to say or how to respond.  He’s confused.


I am firm about our expectations for this year.  I rarely, if ever, talk to him about homework or what he wants for lunch.  I’m drilling him about how he must behave.  I’m drilling him about how he’s going to alert teachers in the event of bullying.  I skip the piece about academics.  Our kids are smart and motivated.  I trust that part.  But how they act around their peers is an ongoing conversation that demands our full attention.

I don’t actually just stop there, with expectations and advice and reminders to be a nice boy.  I take it a step further, and I threaten something that I know makes the conversation real.  I tell our son that if he can’t behave the way he’s supposed to behave, he doesn’t get to go to school.  That it isn’t the responsibility of the teachers or the principal to deal with his behavior.  It’s our responsibility, as a family.  Most parents homeschool their children because it’s best for their child.  We’re willing to homeschool if it’s best for the rest of the kids.


We can’t expect every child in the community to behave exactly as we’d like them to behave.  But we can have these expectations for our own son.  We ask for details at moments in the day when he’s most likely to reveal secrets about what really goes on at school.  We role play difficult situations where he stands up for himself and his friends.  We talk ethics and history and equality.  In other words, we work with him so he gets it right.  At the moment, I think that he does more often than not.  But if one day he can’t, he now knows that he’ll stay home all day.  Every day.

I see it as my responsibility to yank him from school if he’s a bully, or a racist, or a homophobe, or a sexist.  He stays home in one enormous time out for being a jerk.  I expect him to first be a mensch; if that’s not possible, then he doesn’t get to be with other students at the elementary school.  Isolation from school peers is the consequence for failing to make the right choices.  And our consequence as parents would be to figure out a new work schedule.  It’s a sacrifice we’re committed to making.


We live in a community with lots parents that homeschool their children, for many different reasons.  And we’ll join the ranks if necessary.  Not because I’m desperate to teach my kid algebra or biology, but because I believe that for us, school with other children is a privilege, and not a right.

You might be wondering how effective this threat really is with our son.  If he thinks that I’m bluffing.  So I’ll just tell you that he gets very quiet when I bring this up.  And he hears something in my voice that is entirely uncompromising.  I have my greatest convictions as a parent when it comes to how I expect him to behave at school.  If he fails at this task, he knows I won’t fail to deliver on the consequences.  And he’ll miss out on the thing he loves the most.


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About the Author

Danielle Leshaw is the Rabbi and Executive Director of Hillel at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. She’s been published in The New York Times, Tablet Magazine, The Jewish Daily Forward, Moment Magazine, and The Ilanot Review. She’s a Puschart Prize nominee, and is a two-time recipient of the Ohio Arts Council prize, the leading state grant for writers and artists. To see more of her writing, visit www.DanielleLeshaw.com. She’s also on twitter (far too frequently) at @RabbiDanielle.

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