Who’s the Bully Here?

You know why kids bully? Because adults bully. But no one wants to have that conversation.  — Lauryn Mummah McGaster

I saw this pass-along on Facebook the other day and decided that I did want to have the conversation. When we think about bullies, we usually think about kids bullying other kids – classically, stealing their lunch money or more recently, tormenting them for being perceived as gay, or any kind of different, really.

And what do we say when that happens? Kids can be mean. Kids can be cruel. Kids have no respect. In other words, the problem arises in the kids themselves. They shape the victimization of others, presumably out of thin air.

But stop a minute. We know that kids learn what they see adults do. They learn to talk and walk. They learn to swear and belittle. The walking and talking may be hardwired into humans, but the rest is clearly learning by imitation.

But adults aren’t bullies, really. They don’t go around stealing lunch money and certainly not in front of their kids.

You might be surprised, but adult bullying happens a lot at work.  Belittling and humiliation seem to go with business just as much as board meetings and yearly reviews. Not all workplaces are toxic, of course, but almost every one contains a group of gossips or a clique that excludes others just like children do in the cafeteria. They yell at underlings. They sexually harass others. They steal credit for others’ accomplishments and boast about it.

But wait, you say, children seldom if ever come to where their parents work and see them behave this way. How can they be learning bullying from them?

Bullying behavior starts with an attitude, a sentiment that there are winners and losers in life and the winners have the right (or even the duty) to lord it over the losers. Think about how many people were influenced by the “look out for #1” philosophy.

Adults carry these attitudes home with them. Children pick up on them. Think about what adults do and say in front of their kids, even – or maybe especially – when they don’t know the kids are within earshot. They bitch about their neighbors and their bosses. They use words like “bitch” and “bastard” and worse. They talk about their day and how “stupid” some co-worker was or how they “felt like smacking” the customer service representative.

And think about what adults say when their children are being bullied. Often the response is, “If he hits you, hit him right back. Show him you’re the boss.” This perpetuates the “winners and losers” scenario and sometimes leaves the “loser” with a desire to victimize someone even “lesser.”

Worst of all, think about how often adults bully children. There are too many children who are badly abused, hit and kicked and belittled by their parents. These cases sometimes get reported to Children’s Services.

Those are the extreme cases, however. Seldom does a single slap or two get reported. Telling a child that he or she is “no good” or “stupid” or even “a big disappointment” never gets reported at all. Some adults use humiliation, name-calling, and fear, all in the name of discipline and good behavior. Some pit one child against another, praising the “good” child and condemning the other. Some blame and shame ruthlessly.

They may think they are raising obedient children, but they are showing them through actions, words, and even tone of voice what it is to be a bully or a victim and how often bullying succeeds. The essence of bullying is that one person has actual or perceived power over another and uses that power in toxic ways. Think about how much power adults have over children and how seldom they consider how to use that power wisely.

This is certainly not to say that all adults abuse their power or their children. But when you look at children’s behavior, it’s hard not to see a reflection of the environment in which they were raised.

Bullies don’t just happen. They learn.

11 thoughts on “Who’s the Bully Here?

  1. 100% agree on all counts. Every bully I knew growing up turned out to be the victim of bullying and abuse in their own households. I wish people could just be nice to each other. Just be nice! It’s not that hard!


  2. I’ve been bullied many many times as an adult. My older sister, who has been jealous of me since birth, has a very confrontational assertive personality. I am “the nice guy” who flees from confrontation and abhors drama. So….she bullies me constantly. I’ve had boyfriends who did it too. At my last job, my boss who was a huge bitch, bullied me. So naturally I ask myself, what is it about me that says “victim”? Because I’m so nice? Passive? Try to please everyone? I suppose. And I’m sure I could use some therapy. But for now, I just think that I’m very glad I am who I am and not a bully. People like that must have some pretty dark things buried inside themselves. I feel sorry for them


    1. I think it’s the wrong question you’re asking – what about you that says victim? The real question is why are bullies like this permitted to get away with it? They’re the ones doing something wrong, not you.


  3. You are absolutely right! I’ve seen my fair share of bullies in school but it’s nothing compared to the workplace. I’ve seen adults reduced to tears because of an office bully and it’s behavior that seems to be promoted in certain offices. It’s sickening and children have no choice but to absorb and mimic this negative behavior.


  4. I just ran across this post in reader and you’re so correct! I was horribly bullied in middle school and high school- by everyone- for everything. And what I found is that many of my classmates were either dirt poor, had parents who were alcoholics or drug addicts or parents who verbally abused them.

    And yes, a few of my bullies had parents who coddled them and talked badly about others within earshot of the child. But, most of my classmates were miserable human beings and used me and a few other targets to bully and feel better about themselves. It’s sad when I think of it now.

    Thank you for this wonderful and powerful post! Have a great week!


  5. as a 35 year old adult – I was bullied by a 9 year old neighbor girl when I moved into my house.The bullying went on for 4 years and she got her sister and the other kids in the neighborhood to start.
    I spoke a few times nicely to the parents, they didn’t care. They eventually started yelling at me for bringing their daughter’s behavior to their attention.
    The last time I went and knocked on the door, the mother slammed the door in my face and said “I don’t want to hear it.” — I was mad, I kicked in the screen door, and then kicked a wooden gate off her porch. and went home and called the cops.
    They came- talked to the woman, came back to me in disbelief! “She admitted to us she knows her daughters harass you.”
    I spoke to the landlord about the damages I did to his house – but he said “don’t worry about it – I now have an excuse to evict them.”
    And one time their 2 year daughter was crawling around in the bushes at the side of my house — out of sight of her father who was sitting on the porch. I brought her home, told him where I found her and to keep her off my property. He said “my god Ruth, she’s only 2 years old!” — this was when I was still trying to be a the ‘friendly new neighbor.” — I should have f’ing called the cops and child welfare right there and then. Probably would nipped the whole rotten experience in the bud.
    my advice: if you have a bothersome neighbor, try to work it out – if that doesn’t work – call the authorities in.


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