I was a frail kid, thin and quick to cry. I was teased and generally disregarded by kids who needed to feel bigger than they were. Though I appeared weak outside of my house, and paid for that, I was a bully too. I took it out on my two sisters. We laugh, sometimes to tears, about all the antics back then, but when the tides turned for me, and I had scratched my way onto a safe pillar of adulthood, I could breathe. From that safe place, I could see more clearly what had happened. I surveyed; I’ll admit I was appalled. I apologized. One sister exhaled and said, “Good, we can talk about it now,” and that was a remarkable moment in my life. It made all the secret stuff that doesn’t really happen between siblings very real, and for a second, I felt as small and defenseless as I was trying not to be back then.
The other sister laughed and waved it off. I don’t think she has forgiven me, but I’m not positive. It’s infuriating, and humbling, to accept that even when you can see how things should have been, you can’t go back and change them. And you can’t expect forgiveness when you have hurt someone, just because time has passed. You can grow, and soften, but those little hard pits are still there. Bullies act they way they do for a reason. Every one has a different reason, and we’re not talking about sociopaths here. Most bullies are not sociopaths.
When a child comes to me because he or she has been bullied, one of the first things I do is talk with them about the bully. As a person. We talk about who he or she is, what the child knows about him, or her, and what we don’t know. I teach that people who bully are people who don’t know how to play properly. They want to play, they want to just be ok. They don’t know how, and often, that is a secret hidden even from them. We talk about the behavior as a lousy game the bully is trying to play, so we can take some of its magic power away. We strategize how to walk away, stay away, get help, and be kind. Kind doesn’t always mean “nice.”
We talk about all the different ways others try to make us feel small. Sometimes it’s subtle, and never amounts to much. Manipulation, little sneaky stuff that won’t get you caught. Exclusion. Body language that scoffs, demeans, and hurts. Language can pin anything onto us, and boy does it stick sometimes. Body shaming. Slippery and slimy social media wars. Story telling. Sexuality and gender slurs – the low hanging fruit people just won’t stop throwing. The darker things that we’re supposed to be over – racial bias, misogyny, and the like. The classics: A push, a shove, a name. I’m big, you’re little, and I can hurt you; or I’m little, you’re big, and I’ll show you all I’m not small. Then, there is just plain mean.
Adrenaline pumps the same through us all. These behaviors won’t go away. They are part of the human social flaw. The methods are effective. Embracing that truth fully, I can see two places dimly lit by hope, things I’d like to see change.
First, when we try to let kids work it out, that is the right thing to do, but we need to understand they don’t know how. Like any other developmental hurdle, some kids won’t jump it just by being redirected. The concepts are obviously not innate to them, or we would not be having the problem that has somehow landed in front of our intervening faces. They are learning. We are their teachers. When a child shows up with egregious social behaviors, big or small, we need to help them learn how to change the behavior, and not by shaming or punishment alone. We must start to understand they, too, are human and flawed and in need of assistance, whether they know it or not, whether they are kind to us or not. Boldly, and yet without making excuses for any child who hurts others, we need to start calling them to a higher standard of prosocial behavior. We need to show them, with compassion AND firm action, that we are here to help, and we believe they are capable of more. We all are.
Second, we need to stop telling kids who say they are being bullied that they are not. We need to stop telling the story about how only a certain level of cruel or harmful behavior qualifies as “bullying.” Too often, what we are willing to legitimately accept as bullying started far before it looked like a misdemeanor. It starts with the sneaky nonsense and it trickles over kids like silty slime. They are all buried in it, unable to clear it from their mouths and ears, before we even catch wind of it. It fills their chests, and suffocates their fast-beating hearts. It doesn’t matter if they are soft or frail or loud and harsh. It doesn’t matter if they put themselves in the blender over and over and over again. It’s part of growing up. They will hurt one another, and they will cause suffering, and sometimes, they will have asked for it, because they are all seeking the same things – love, connection, and acceptance. They risk the ugly stuff because they hope to break through, just like in red rover.
Bullying is a buzz word now. We have lost the battle. So, we minimize it, roll our eyes, ask them to suck it up. We coddle, we vilify, we get involved. We make it worse. But mostly, we are outnumbered, and we don’t have the time to work with it properly. We have to. It is the manifestation of youthful inexperience, fear gone to work in the social blender, and a poor understanding that we are all mortal, together. Some of them have enough of what they need, and can stay out of the fray. Those are the ones who may struggle, but likely won’t cause others to suffer directly. They are the happier kids, the ones who are easier to be around, and even some of them are going to suffer mightily. It pains me to even write that, but the kids have taught me no one gets through unscathed.
Confidence, humility, compassion, empathy. Resiliency, boundaries, safety, happiness. All of these things we hope our children will embody, but they are hard earned. I believe it’s time to stop punishing the kids who don’t have these skills, and be part of the community that can help them get started. We have a choice. We can put big stories on them, labeling them as bad kids, or calling them mean, or we can call it out, and say to them, with big hearts and big arms, “there is another way.” We can show them, with our responses, and by holding them properly accountable. We can lead them toward something different, with patience and diligence.