They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, and that could be the working theme of both the book and movie, ‘Wonder.’
“Wonder” was published in 2012 by R.J. Palacio and features a young man who has Treacher Collins Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes deformities of the ears, eyes, cheekbones and chin. Poised to start fifth grade after being homeschooled for many years and undergoing 27 surgeries, August Pullman’s journey in is not without some bumps and tears.
The newly released movie which tripled ticket expectations at the box office is sure to further the reach of the book, which was itself on the New York Times Best Seller List. With a star studded cast, including Julia Roberts, Jacob Tremblay and Owen Wilson.
So if you don’t have a rare genetic syndrome, you may wonder why is “Wonder” worth your time. Dr. Katrina Lindsay, an Akron Children’s Hospital pediatric psychologist, works with all the issues raised in this story with patients all the time. We asked her to draw on her experiences to help parents make Wonder and even more “WONDERful” experience for their children, and themselves.
Q: Why is middle school particularly a difficult time for all kids, especially for kids like Auggie?
A. Ahhh, middle school. It is important to look at middle school through the lens of Developmental Psychology.
This developmental stage (early-mid adolescence) is identified as “identity development,” in which children are trying to figure out who they are and who they are not.
Am I goth or am I punk? Am I the class clown or Ms. Popular? This time of life is very stressful behaviorally, socially and hormonally (for parent and child). In addition to this mix, we add access to cell phones, increased independence and, did I say it already, hormones.
During identity development, it is very common for children to form in/group and out/group behaviors with other children who identify similarly. This sets the stage for relational aggression (“you can’t sit with us! You’re a nerd!”).
Teens’ frontal lobes (that important part of the brain responsible for behavioral inhibition and impulsivity) are also not fully developed yet, so you can also blame it on the brain. This can also be a particularly difficult time for children with medical diagnoses, as they are trying to figure out the way in which their diagnosis “fits” into their developing self-identity.
Q: How hard is it to be a parent of a child who is bullied?
A: It’s incredibly difficult because as a parent, you feel truly out of control. Oftentimes this bullying is occurring during unstructured activities when a parent’s guard may be down (like online) or when they are not present to intervene (like the school bus).
Parents must walk the tightrope between “helicoptering” and being neglectful.
I encourage families to always contact the school, especially if their child is being targeted due to their medical diagnosis. It is sad to say that even with the increase in movies like “Wonder,” kids continue to bully other kids like Auggie. It is also very important to teach your own children about how to be good bystanders and report instances of bullying when they witness it occurring to other children, especially during those unstructured times.
Q: Unintentional bullying vs. intentional bullying: Stares, looks of disgust, looking away, questions, assuming someone who looks different is stupid … these are all common reactions to Auggie’s appearance. What can parents tell their children to help buffer these first reactions that make kids with differences so uncomfortable?
A: As any parent that has experienced a barrage of “who, what, when, where and why’s?” by their own children, these curiosities continue even on school grounds. We want and encourage children to ask questions and be active learners in their environment, but for medically fragile children or kids like Auggie, these curious questions can have unintentional emotional consequences.
In my clinic, we describe this as, “unintentional bullying”: “Why do you look like that?” or “Why do you make those sounds?” or “What is that inhaler for?” These are questions I have heard many times when children describe how they have been bullied.
First step is to assess for intentionality. As their provider, I will often spend time exploring the setting events and the context, and allow the child to play the detective in order to figure out the reason the classmate was asking these questions in order to figure out if the child was curious or being cruel. Did these questions take place in private and public? What did their tone sound like? Is this person a friend or a stranger?
It is so important to teach self-advocacy skills so that the child can go through these “detective” steps on their own when they reach adolescents. Sometimes we might role play or even make a print-out of responses that the child can just hand to the questioning classmate instead of reviewing their entire personal history repeatedly, which can be quite triggering for some children.
For some truly motivated and inspirational children, they have written class speeches about their diagnosis, made YouTube videos or even spoke at their class pep rallies–which is amazingly brave.
For parents of all children, it is important to review these skills so that their children aren’t unintentional bullies. Staring, for example, can feel quite threatening and cruel to visually different children, but so can staring away and not meeting the eyes of the child. Teach your children to just say, “Hi.”
Q: In this story, the main bully, fellow student Julian, clearly is getting much of his motive to bully from his mom. How do parents’ actions influence their kids, especially when it comes to bullying?
A: Parents are children’s primary social role models, and they are always watching their actions and inactions. For example, Julian’s parent photoshopped Auggie out of a picture, which gave her child the “greenlight” to engage in bully behaviors towards Auggie at school. Even small moments, like making a comment about somebody “different” at the mall or allowing children to watch television programs that use differences for comedic value can have significant effects on your child’s bully-aggressor behaviors.