It is one of the most heartbreaking moments a mom will ever know: your child comes home from school and says:
“The kids won’t play with me.”
“My friends don’t want to talk to me anymore.”
“They make fun of me and whisper behind my back.”
It’s a subtle kind of bullying that teachers can’t fix because you can’t show proof. A punch leaves a mark; ostracization and teasing slowly kill your child’s confidence. How do you teach your child to fight back without turning him into a bully himself?
You can start by reading your child this book.
Meet Super Ningning! Super Ningning is the story of a lonely little girl who thinks she needs superpowers to fight back the bullies or escape their relentless teasing. She searches the school for an anting-anting, but along the way, she meets other kids in trouble and helps them out. It turns out the only superpower she needs is kindness and compassion. They become a barkada, and she stops caring what the bullies say or do. “I don’t need super powers. I have super friends!”
It’s a simple but empowering message, skillfully brought to the page by award-winning author Liwliwa Malabed. Her first story, Anya and Her Tears, won the MMPI Dreamweaver’s Contest for an original bedtime story. Since then, she has published 12 books, with four more scheduled for release.
The beautiful illustrations are done by Kora Dandan Albano, who’s done 47 books for publishers like Adarna, Lampara, and Anvil. Her work has also appeared on three books for international publisher Tuttle. (Read our feature on Kora here.)
“Kora is actually one of my dream illustrators,” Liwa says, adding that she had been collecting Kora's books and art before they even became friends. “When the publisher asked me [who I wanted to work with] I didn’t even look at their catalog -- I said I wanted Kora.”
Super Ningning’s message against bullying is very close to both of their hearts. Both of them experienced it when they were kids, and both of them are moms. They also know a simple story can’t solve a very emotional issue, but it can start a powerful conversation that you can with your child. Here are some things you can tell them.
• Kindness is your superpower “Children can really be mean sometimes. And their capacity to hurt one another is a bit scary,” says Liwa. She remembers being bullied as a child -- like her heroine, she would cry alone under a tree. In high school, her barkada had stopped talking to her because she made friends with a girl who “had a weird laugh.”
Liwa hopes Super Ningning will help kids put themselves in other people’s shoes. “I want them to realize they need to be kind to each other.” In her book, her heroine finds other students who are hurting too. She could have ignored them (for every bully, there are hundreds of kids who just look away). She could have become a bully herself because lots of kids who experience violence will turn on someone weaker. But she chose to be kind.
What moms can do:Teach your child to be kind. It’s true that not everyone will become their friends, but Liwa says to tell your kids, “You help out because that person needs you at that moment. If she [doesn’t become] your friend, that’s all right! You still helped someone and made her/his world a bit better than before.
• Teach empathy Teaching empathy is powerful because kids don’t realize that words can hurt as much as a physical punch. Kora recalled the teasing and “harutan” she got from her siblings. “It was the norm while we were growing up. My parents had no idea that [it] was a form of bullying.” She would cry or retaliate. “If they called me names like Korangutan I would think of names for them. If they pinched, I pinched back.”
What moms can do: Don’t tolerate mean-spirited teasing (even in jest). When kids are told that bullying is okay, they learn to do it others. When they’re told “You’re so pikon! Can’t you take a joke?” they think their feelings don’t matter. “I hope that, the bullies will realize that their actions hurt people, that everything has a consequence,” says Liwa.
• Show them that they’re heroes, not victims Liwa named her character after her sister. “She would always defend me. I was a pushover, and she taught me how to be more assertive.”
A child who is bullied feels helpless and scared. In the book, Ningning would wait until the corridors were clear before going to the bathroom. She’d let other kids tease her or push her out of the cafeteria line.
“I hope that those are being bullied, even though they are hurting now, they will find their inner strength and learn to stand up for themselves,” says Liwa.
There is a very powerful metaphor in this book that your kids can take with them for the rest of their lives. Either you cry and feel like a victim, or you can decide to be a hero. You can help other people, or find your proverbial anting-anting that makes you feel stronger and happier.
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What moms can do: Help kids focus on the good Talk about what makes you feel better on a bad day. When we asked Liwa what words she’d use, she says, “My writing is my super power. Whenever I feel bad, I write about it, and I feel better afterward. I also have my super smile and super hugs that make my friends feel better on a bad day.”
• Watch for more subtle bullying There’s a whole spectrum of bullying: from the subtle feeling that you’re not included in the crowd, to frenemies suddenly being mean, to outright physical or emotional attacks. Both Liwa and Kora believe that it also gets worse in high school and because of social media.
“Bullies can be anonymous on social media,” says Kora. “People got bolder and meaner [the person] is not in front of you, and it’s easier to get away with it.”
They’re considering writing sequels for older ages. “I imagine Ningning’s circle of friends would continue to grow because they keep helping kids being bullied. A wonderful ripple effect!” says Liwa.
What moms can do: Just keep talking to your kids. Ask them what happened in school and among friends. Help them finetune their emotional radar and boundaries. It’s normal for friends to disagree, but when things turn mean, help them see this isn’t someone they should really trust. They’ll have to learn the hard way – but you can be their sounding board and their most reliable Super Friend.