In the past few years it has dawned on parents, teachers, and administrators that bullying is not normal human behavior. I couldn't agree more. Bullying, which is basically repetitive negative actions towards a person who has difficulty defending himself is not part of growing up. Neither is verbal abuse, euphemistically called teasing. These behaviors do not build character. Bullying is a pathological behavior, which is to say sick, and therefore, wrong. Parties on both sides pay a high emotional and often physical price as a result of this kind of behavior. It is damaging, even into adulthood, and everyone suffers. If you were being "bullied" in the workplace, it would be called harassment and there are legal ramifications for the behavior. Children and adolescents deserve the same kind of protection. If your boss were sending you unwanted, inappropriate e-mails, for example, it would interfere with your ability to do good work. Likewise, kids have a job to do at school--to learn--and peer bullying takes away from that. The underlying causes of bullying are beginning to be examined which is a good thing and many public campaigns have taken aim at stopping the problem. Heretofore, bullying has been excused because young people unlike adults simply don't know any better and the compulsion to be cruel is just so strong in their still-growing brains. In my opinion, bullying is usually a symptom that something else is wrong. This gives parents and teachers the opportunity to educate youngsters that bullying is wrong and won't be tolerated just like any other destructive behavior. But before that can happen, we need to look inward.
When I was growing up in the 80s there was little real concern about bullying. At least, that was my experience. In the first grade I was bullied by a boy in my class who would kick me in the shins while we were boarding the school bus and do other things like pull my hair and push me down. No one in the school did anything about it; if they even noticed and of course, I volunteered nothing at first. He was a boy and therefore, bigger, stronger, and faster. I couldn't effectively defend myself even if I tried. Thankfully, my parents did notice the bruising on my legs and confronted the boy's parents. His angry father basically told my mother that she was making a big deal out of nothing and that his son was "just being a kid." The bullying did not stop that year. Finally, one day at recess, the boy started with me and somehow, on this day, I got the upper hand. The playground was covered in snow and we were playing in our puffy winter suits. Somehow, I fought back and pushed him into the snow. Perhaps the added awkwardness of the weather worked to my advantage. At any rate, it was extremely satisfying to turn the tables at last and "give him a taste of his own medicine." Finally, on this day, the teachers noticed. Prior to this day, I believe, my teacher had been too preoccupied with her own petty concerns such as "working for the weekend" and "waiting for her skinny mullet-head boyfriend in his red hot Iroc to finally propose" to pay much attention to the students. She dragged both of us into the principal's office where we were both punished for fighting. It did however, put an end to the bullying that year.
If you think about this anecdote, so irreverently told by me, the messages are so detrimental and I am hopeful that things have changed over the past 25 years. The lax attitudes and culture of denial in my mostly poor community were a recipe for disaster and underscore our current need for more quality, dedicated teachers in our schools. The take home messages to my young self may be summed up as: If you stand up for yourself and fight back, you too will be punished (the world is unfair). If you suffer in silence, no one will notice (the world is negligent, i.e. no one cares about me). Not the kind of thing you want your kid learning at school, eh?
Two years after being bullied, I bullied a schoolmate on the bus too. The same bus #5 where I had been victimized. My target was a boy a year younger than I. He was big and awkward and intelligent; easy prey. My abuse towards him was verbal. It went unnoticed until he told his parents and they called the school principal (not my parents). One day when I was boarding the bus, I was ambushed by the Mr. Belvedere lookalike principal who sounded like a fat, winded version of Dennis Leary. As I ascended the stairs onto the bus, he grabbed me by my coat and pulled me down to the sidewalk. He pointed in my face and told me that he knew what was going on and that I should go "pick on someone my own size." Not only did this comment make no sense (the boy was technically bigger than me) but it was both intimidating and bad advice. One more take home message: administrators cannot be trusted.
Whatever was going on in the development of myself as a victim and a bully and the boy who bullied me was never addressed. Indeed, something may have been going on in our home lives that prompted such hurtful behavior towards our peers. The most astonishing thing about my stories however, is the response of the adults in the situation: parents, teachers, administrators, and bus drivers. There was no sense of accountability on behalf of the children about whom they were supposed to care. As responsible adults it is our job to nip bad behavior in the bud and that includes bullying. As any gardener with a green thumb knows, when something in your garden, say it is a basil plant, is not pruned for a while, it begins to grow buds at the top, where the edible parts should be. If left unchecked, the buds will grow and multiply and the healthy part of the plant will not grow. So when you nip your basil plant in the bud, it not only prevents it from going to seed, it encourages it to grow even bigger. It is the same way with our children. Tend to the garden in your home if you want it to grow to it's full potential. And don't forget to nip it in the bud.
Last fall I had my own opportunity to nip a bully in the bud. It was the week that Busy Boy had started to crawl. To Pixie Pie, this posed a huge threat. Now that he was mobile, he could reach her toys. Who was to know what he was capable of? That week, I got a report each day that my daughter had been pushing and yelling at one of her little friends. On the last day of the week it was apparent that it wasn't a fluke and that Pixie was doing a 3-year old's version of bullying. Her victim was a girl much smaller than she, a perfect substitute for the anger she had towards her brother. This made me think. If a preschool child can identify a vulnerable peer and take out her aggression on him than perhaps it is the same way with older children. Perhaps adults can start by asking themselves who or what the bully is really angry at. Pixie's behavior changed for the better once I started giving her more of the undivided attention sans Busy Boy that she was so desperately needing.
So, as a parent I am concerned about what I read in the paper about some of the extreme examples of bullying that have happened in the past few years and I worry a bit but like all of my worries, there is hope. I know that parents today are more tuned in and eager than ever and let's face it, you can't get any worse than the way the adults handled bullying in my youth.