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Zaya Ariuna

Bullies ruined my childhood. Then I realized my daughter is one.

It was a crisp day last October when I realized that my family and I needed to change our lives. Up until this point, I thought things were going okay. My husband, Jason, and I have been married for more than 20 years and have five children, ages 12 to 19. With great jobs, a nice house, and healthy kids, it looked like we were living the American dream. But on this seemingly average fall day, a conversation with my 14-year-old daughter changed everything.

I had just picked up Emily from school, and she was chattering on about her day. She started talking about the end of her soccer season, and that reminded me — now that soccer was done, she was going to have some free time. "I saw that they just posted tryout dates for the next play," I said. "Are you going to audition?"

Emily looked at me in horror. "Um, Mom? Are you kidding? Have you even seen those people?"

I thought, Those people? What people?

"I can't be seen with drama people," she said. "They are, like, total losers. I can't even believe you would suggest that." She flipped her long, perfectly straightened hair behind her back, picked up her phone, and began Snapchatting her friends.

I was silent for the rest of the drive home. As I looked over at my daughter happily taking selfies, it dawned on me. My sweet, kind, and beautiful daughter was a mean girl: self-centered, judgmental, unaccepting of others who were different from her. It broke my heart. Growing up, I had been tormented by mean girls. How was it that I had raised one?

Bullies ruined my childhood

Growing up, I always felt different from everyone else. I didn't fit in. While other 4-year-olds played with each other, I stood awkwardly on the sidelines. I would try to break into their playgroups, and the kids would stare at me like I had a second head. They would go and play somewhere else just to get away from me.

By the time I was in third or fourth grade, the actual bullying began. I was called names like "Miss Piggy" and "Piggy Face." I was kicked and tripped by students while we stood in line. Classmates threw things at me during lunch or while the teacher had his back turned. My mom contacted the school several times, and they did nothing to stop the harassment. The teachers knew what was going on, but they did nothing. One teacher suggested to me that if I wore better clothes and styled my hair differently, perhaps I wouldn't be such a target.

As I got older, the teasing and harassment only got worse, and by the time I was in ninth grade, the years of verbal and emotional abuse by my classmates had taken their toll on me. I hated school and hated myself. The breaking point was when a football player attacked me and fractured my tailbone — €”in front of a group of laughing cheerleaders. I left the school and started going to a small, private all-girls high school.

I liked the new school. Still, the emotional scars from the years of being tormented by my classmates remain to this day.

I tried to protect my daughter from what I experienced — and ended up turning her into a mean girl

I knew that when I became a parent, I did not want my children to experience the pain of what I had gone through. I wanted them to have confidence in themselves and their unique abilities while still being compassionate and empathetic to others. I felt my mission as a parent was to ensure I had well-adjusted children. I based my personal worth in that goal.

With four of my five children, everything seemed to go as planned. They matured into well-adjusted young adults who were kind and accepting of others. With Emily? Apparently she didn't get the memo. Deep down I had always hoped she would have the opportunity to become everything I was not as a child: beautiful, socially accepted, smart, athletic —you know, practically perfect in every way. While it is difficult to admit, I realize that I subconsciously poured my heart and soul into Emily because she was my first daughter. While I had three wonderful boys, I had an obsession with having a little girl so that I could give her a successful childhood. I saw her as a "do over" for everything I was unable to achieve or become as a person.

I didn't want her to experience rejection, so I bought her stylish clothes, enrolled her in gymnastics and dance classes, and always had her hair perfectly styled. I took her to concerts, shopping, and every fun, girly activity I could find. I got her into pageants and modeling and acting. In the meantime, I had four other children whom I also doted on, but not in the same way. I allowed them to be themselves, not my "do over" project.

And in my attempt to shield Emily from anything that could hurt her emotionally, I harmed her. My "hands on" parenting did her a disservice by giving her mixed messages. On one hand, I was telling her to be kind to others and to be inclusive. On the flip side, I was telling her she was the most important person in the world.

I had an obsession with having a little girl so that I could give her a successful childhood

I tried to speak with Emily about her behavior, but she looked at me like I had grown two heads. She didn't see anything wrong with it. I tried putting it in more general, less personal terms. So a conversation would go something like this:

Me: "Hey, Em, if your friend was making fun of someone because they were overweight, what would you do?"

Emily (thinking): "Well, are they actually fat, or just a little bit plump?"

Me: "Um, does it actually matter?"

Emily: "Totally. Like, it depends if it's their fault because they eat too much or if they have a medical condition or something."

Me: "Wait a minute — so you're saying it's okay to make fun of someone?"

Emily: "Well, it depends if it's their fault…"

I didn't even know what to say. I know that I had never taught her to think this way. I worried that she was much too far gone. As I listened to her talk with her friends, her friends all said the same things or worse.

To complicate matters, I realized that the girls' parents were just as gossipy and juvenile as their daughters. At my daughter's soccer game one afternoon, I heard several mothers talking about some of the players. They remarked on how fat some of the girls on the team were and how they should be at fat camp, not on the varsity soccer team. As they went on, I got angrier and angrier. They were chatting away about someone's child. I left at halftime because I was disgusted with their behavior. Even if I wasn't teaching my daughter this type of behavior, it was everywhere. Her peers were bullies, their parents were bullies, and it only made sense that Emily would learn to act that way too, in order to fit in. It seemed we were living in an environment where we couldn't escape it.

Our seemingly drastic solution: move to a tiny town

Jason and I knew we had to do something to get our daughter back on the right track. I was overwhelmed, because it had taken 14 years to shape her thinking and I didn't know how we could instill new values in her. I did know it wasn't just about changing her mentality; it was about changing our thinking as well.

Jason and I examined ourselves and our lives, and looked at areas where we could make positive changes. We realized we were putting energy into areas of our lives that were not important to us. We were working hard to support our family in a city where we barely knew our neighbors and where we did not feel a sense of community. No one took the time to get to know each other, and the friendliest people I met during the day were usually Starbucks baristas.

We always said our biggest priority was family, yet we rarely saw each other. How could we expect Emily to get outside of herself if we weren't even able to do it for ourselves? We were too busy running kids around to practices and trying to keep up appearances.

For years, we kept telling ourselves that we wanted to live a simple life, yet our lives didn't reflect that vision. We felt that if we actually followed through on what we desired, the family values we wanted for our children would eventually follow.

So we made a seemingly drastic decision: We moved to a small town (population 3,200) with a single stoplight. Fortunately, this measure was not quite as crazy as it initially seemed. We didn't just throw a dart at a dartboard and pack our family up in a U-Haul hoping for the best. Our family is very outdoorsy, and for several years we had been driving to this small town to go hiking, swimming, and camping. Every time we went up there, we fell more and more in love with the town.

It was stunningly beautiful, surrounded by mountains and rivers, and it had some of the best fishing and camping in the state. The great news was that it was less than an hour from where we currently lived. The town boasted great local restaurants and the cutest main street you have ever seen, and everyone we met seemed to be so real and unpretentious. This small town was my idea of paradise, and the more Jason and I talked about it, the more it seemed to represent the values we wanted to teach our children.

With all of these considerations in mind, we decided to try to fix our lives by downsizing. We felt that moving our entire family to such an environment would be healthier for all of us. That talk with Emily in the car last October made us realize there were many things wrong with our lives, and that change needed to happen now before it was too late.

Our new house is about a third the size of our old home. We've replaced our designer clothing with flannel and jeans, and I rarely put on makeup, but life is much happier. We now have the time and energy to focus on life and the people around us, instead of keeping up appearances.

We still live within a 45-minute drive to work, but if you tell anyone from our old town where we live, they think we:

  1. Have gone bankrupt
  2. Are running from the law
  3. Have gone insane
  4. All of the above

I will not sugarcoat things. Initially, the kids were not happy about the move. We told them we needed to make some positive changes for our entire family, but I don't think they could fully grasp how moving to a modest house in the middle of nowhere would be a positive experience. When we told them we were closing on a house in a week, I am pretty sure they considered mutiny €”or worse. They all thought we were trying to ruin their lives by taking them away from their friends.

We did make some concessions: We agreed they could stay at their schools, as long as we all committed to a simpler life outside of work and school. For us, a "simpler life" means doing family activities regularly, being involved in and giving back to our community, spending time outside, and being less attached to material things (including our technology!).

Despite the longer commute, life has changed for the better. Life just seems to move at a slower pace. We no longer have a huge house to keep up, so we can spend time doing what we love as a family. Once everyone is home from work and school, we are all able to relax, rather than exist in frantic stress mode. We spend a lot of time going on hikes or playing board games together. We also have time to volunteer, so we are working with the local library and community theater on different projects.

Whereas technology used to rule our lives, I have noticed we are no longer so attached to our phones. Once the weekend arrives, I put my phone away and don't look at it again until Monday morning. I had no idea that going days without checking emails or texts could be such a freeing experience. It sounds a bit dramatic, but if I could figure out how to do my job without technology, I would cancel my cellphone contract in a second.

How could we expect Emily to get outside of herself if we weren't even able to do it for ourselves?

As for Emily? I would like to say that after our move, her behavior completely changed and we lived happily ever after. Unfortunately that is not the case. We've made a good start, but true change has to occur over time. Emily is still going to her old school. She is surrounded by the same girls who encourage her bullying behavior. I feel now more than ever that she needs to be removed from her current school so that she can get outside of herself. As a parent, I hate the thought of taking a child out of high school and creating such instability, but in the long run, I am confident that it will be the right decision.

I tried to be Emily's friend instead of a parent. I have only a few years left to make an impact, and she may very well hate me for it. But Jason and I are united in our decision with this move and our new lifestyle.

Still, Emily has not become invested in our new town like the rest of us. While she lives here, her life is still back in our old city. She has not made an effort to make any friends here, as she feels she does not belong with "these people." While she admits that our town is beautiful, she looks at our new lifestyle with distaste.

It's disappointing, but I am not giving up. Jason and I have decided that Emily will transfer to our local school at the beginning of the new school year. It will be a painful transition for her, but a necessary one. We feel that once she becomes a true part of our community, she will slowly but surely realize that life is more about relationships than appearances. While there are no guarantees that our intervention will be successful, I finally feel that our actions match our words. Our entire family is finally moving in the right direction together.

Kate Young is a real estate agent and freelance writer. She previously worked as a talent manager in the entertainment industry. She lives with her husband of more than 20 years and her five children.

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