“Go back to Pakistan. You’re a stupid foreigner. Nobody wants you.”
That’s how countless bullies belittled young Gabriella van Rij when she was in school. She had grown up in a Catholic orphanage in a small Pakistani village, given away by her Muslim mother. There, she met a British volunteer who took her under her wing.
“Helen took it upon herself to fight through paperwork and through Pakistani bureaucracy,” van Rij told LifeZette, using only the woman’s first name. The Pakistani toddler grew up with her adoptive family in the Netherlands.
The adoption was a blessing — but the bullying persisted.
The van Rij parents were diplomats, so they moved often and sometimes in the middle of a school year — and the young girl had a new language to learn. At one point, a group of kids “ripped off my skirt when I was at school,” van Rij said. “I sat with my bicycle under a bridge in Holland, throwing stones in the canal, and I thought, ‘Life can’t get any worse.'” She knew she would face punishment for the ruined skirt when she got home, so she sneaked into her house and stuffed it into the garbage.
Van Rij doubts she would have survived such pervasive bullying today. “In today’s world, my humiliation wouldn’t be in front of 30 children; it would be 300; 3,000; 300,000; 3 million” — because children today record bullying events and spread them all over the web.
She now lives in Los Angeles and travels as an assembly speaker to help students and educators understand how to address bullying. She’s very enthusiastic about the announcement by future first lady Melania Trump that she will address cyber bullying in the White House.
“If I had lived in today’s world, my humiliation wouldn’t be in front of 30 children; it would have been 300; 3,000; 300,000; 3 million,” said one bullying victim.
“When I hear Melania Trump say she wants to do something about cyber bullying — which I call cyber torment — I hope she finds me on speed dial,” she said.
As a kindness advocate for parents and kids, van Rij shares four helpful tips to fill the gap of nonexistent online etiquette training:
1.) Be an active witness.
“I wish someone had stood up for me all those years,” she said. If you or your children see someone being bullied online or in person, realize you have power to change the momentum of the scene. Bullies often require a witness to validate their behavior. If you walk away from the scene and communicate your disapproval, they will lose their momentum. If you step in and say a kind word about people online, victims will realize they have someone in their corner.
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2.) Own your uniqueness.
“I have one foot in the West and one foot in the East,” said van Rij. “But isn’t it OK not to belong to either? For a person like myself, who has a little bit of everything from the environment and my DNA, isn’t it just OK to learn to be you?” The key for anyone subjected to bullying is to feel comfortable in their own skin and accept themselves as they are.
3.) Vent in private — not in public.
Technology is not the source of our cyber bullying problem. Technology is neutral — but how we use it is not. “Smartphones are weapons in the wrong hands,” she said, adding, “Think before you post.” If you need to vent frustrations, it’s OK to type something out and never hit the Share button.
4.) Check your motive.
Most bullies attack others because they want to get points for being funny, or they have feelings of resentment or jealousy. Van Rij points out that a lot of the negative attacks against Melania Trump arose because others might have been jealous of how she looks or resented her for being a foreigner. It’s essential parents teach kids that the best kind of humor is positive and uplifting — not denigrating.
The bottom line? We can’t continue to say mean things about people online and then expect our children to know how to be kind.