Ask Amy Amy Dickinson, Ask Amy

Amy Dickinson is a general advice columnist.

DEAR READERS: I've stepped away from my column for a few days. Please enjoy these "Best Of" columns in my absence.

DEAR AMY: My 12-year-old son started at a new school, where he has become a target for verbal bullying by a few older guys. The school is doing its best to control the situation. But my son feels a need to respond with some funny quips. Do you or your readers have any suggestions?

Eloise

DEAR ELOISE: Speaking as a quipper and all-around smarty-pants, I'd like to applaud your son's desire to stand up to these bullies in his own way. I know that his spunky qualities will serve him well, certainly later in life.

I turned to an expert on bullying to see if quipping is as effective against playground bullies as it can be against boardroom bullies.

Dr. Sherryll Kraizer is head of the Coalition for Children in Denver and author of "The Safe Child Book: A Commonsense Approach to Protecting Children and Teaching Children to Protect Themselves" (1996, Touchstone).

Kraizer says that shooting back banter can work well at this age, providing that your son knows how to do it effectively. Responding to bullying with a quip of his own might be a way for your son to feel confident and powerful, which is good bully-proofing behavior. He also needs to know when not to quip.

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Role-playing with your son can help him come up with more strategies, because as every stand-up comic knows, you never open with your new stuff until you run it past your mom first.

Simple statements such as "Whatever" or "Go find someone who cares" should be followed by walking away. Walking away is key here. Responding with strong but not aggressive body language and eye contact will show these bullies that your son isn't afraid.

You should continue to work with the school about this -- not just for your son's sake, but for the sake of the larger school community. Check: safechild.org for more information. (March 2004)

DEAR AMY: My husband has been estranged from his father for almost 25 years. Every five years or so, his dad attempts to contact him and it usually turns out badly. His father suffers from depression and perhaps other mental illnesses and tends to call when he is not well and hasn't been taking his medication. He usually says terrible, hurtful things. The last episode was four years ago, and my husband finally decided to cut off all contact. Our oldest daughter (age 4) has asked my husband about his father, but he just changed the subject. We both agree that this should not be kept a secret, but neither of us can come to terms with how to explain it to our kids. We don't want our kids to grow up thinking that they have a grandparent who is a bad guy. How can we approach this?

Elizabeth

DEAR ELIZABETH: You'd be surprised how accepting children are of the truth, if it's delivered in a straightforward and sensitive manner. At age 4, children are very curious about family relationships, as they learn to put branches on their family tree.

I think it would be good if your husband found some photos from his childhood to show the kids. The next time your daughter asks, he can sit down with her and point out who various family members are. When he gets to his dad, he should tell your daughter his dad's name and share a benign memory from his childhood.

When your daughter asks where his dad is now, your husband should tell her where he lives. If she asks why he doesn't see him, he can say simply, "He has a sickness that makes him say bad things to me, and I haven't seen him in a long time." Then he can tell your daughter that he feels so lucky to be her dad and that he'll always be there for her, in every way.

I would add that having young children often brings generations to reconciliation, even if it is an uneasy one. Perhaps your husband can declare a truce of sorts. (March 2004)