Tag Archives: bullying

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.

Lies We Tell About Bullying

girl wearing black and white striped dress sitting on stair
Photo by Zun Zun on Pexels.com

Being bullied has taught me a lot over the years. Lessons learned in childhood run deep and last long. We learn to not be noticed. That we must try to fit in. That certain people and places and situations are hazardous. That being different is a sin.

But it is not only the things that children do to one another that cause harm. Some of the things that adults say to children about bullying hurt the most. These remarks may be intended to help the bullied child, but at times they do as much damage as the bullying itself.

Chief among the responses to bullying that adults come up with is “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This is a profound lie, as any bullied child knows. Oh, there are sticks and stones, even literal ones. As a third-grader I had rocks thrown at me and countless children have experienced physical bullying – pushing, tripping, hitting, and more.

But words are more than capable of hurting just as much. There are forms of bullying other than physical – emotional, social, racial, sexual. But these forms of bullying are much less visible than the physical kind. If the grown-ups responsible for the care and well-being of the child don’t see bruises or bloody noses, they may think no harm has occurred.

Socially or emotionally bullied children are often told “Don’t be so sensitive.” And it may be true that less sensitive children do not feel the effects of cruel words as drastically. But the underlying message is that there is something wrong with the bullied child – excessive sensitivity. And this is not something that children can change about themselves. It’s like telling a person not to be so tall.

Another piece of advice commonly given to bullied children is, “Just ignore them.” If becoming less sensitive is impossible, even more so is ignoring bullies. Bullies are in-your-face. It’s almost impossible to ignore insults and injuries, derisive chants or laughter. Humiliation is not something that can simply be shrugged off. Bullies rejoice in having an audience for their abuse. It’s beyond hard to ignore a room or playground of kids (or teens), all of whom have witnessed your victimization.

Similarly, bullied children are told, “Other people’s opinions don’t matter.” Again, this is a lie. Of course they do. The opinions of a child’s peers control whether other children feel safe being friends with a bully’s victim. Their opinions determine whether a child will be lonely or despised, or will develop self-esteem. Bullies affect the opinions of other children and make the circle of bullies and bystanders wider. Other people’s opinions make wide ripples.

Bullied children often hear, “Toughen up.” Again, this is an assignment given with no clue as to how it is to be accomplished. It may even be misinterpreted as tacit permission to become a bully too. After all, bullies are tough. And the saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” may come into play. Naturally, this only expands the number of bullies and can victimize other children. A bullied child who becomes a bully may experience not a sense of empowerment but a sense of guilt.

Another common reaction to bullying is to encourage or even to coach a child in fighting back physically. This has little chance of working if the bully is physically larger than the victim and takes a lot of practice if it is to work at all. In addition it teaches children that violence is an appropriate solution to a problem. If the bullying has been emotional or social rather than physical, the bullied child is also likely to get in trouble for striking back in a literal manner.

The problem is that the bullied child is not the problem. He or she does not need to change or be changed. The bully is the one who is demonstrating unacceptable behavior and needs to be stopped. Bystanders are bullying enablers and need to learn how to support and intervene instead.

There are no simple solutions to bullying, which will likely continue as long as children are children, though with awareness of the problem and concerted efforts on the part of adults, it may someday lessen and be less acceptable and less accepted.

But whatever the solution is, it is clearly not to tell the bullied child lies.

The Already Lost Generation

We talk about banks that are too big to fail, and car companies, and such. We say that schools are failing, but really we think that schools are too big to fail – that if we take reform seriously and rebuild schools from the ground up – we’ll “lose a generation.” But we’ve already lost them.

When students drop out, we’ve lost them.

When students graduate and can barely read, we’ve lost them.

When students are still segregated by race, we’ve lost them.

When students must choose home learning over being bullied…

When female students routinely lose self-esteem and interest in math and science…

When students are valued more for athletics than academics…

When students learn to take tests instead of to think and question…

When students are denied accurate science and health lessons…

When young artists can’t learn to develop their talent…

When students with disabilities must have advocates and lawyers to make progress…

When students who do graduate can’t afford higher education…

When classes are so big that struggling students disappear in the crowd…

When technology is plentiful only in the wealthiest districts…

When school funding is dependent on location…

When school curriculum is dependent on location…

When school buildings are unfit to house students…

When new teachers are sent to the worst schools…

When teachers must use their own money for classroom supplies…

When teachers and students both cheat on tests…

When school boards and government ride their personal hobbyhorses…

When three states determine the whole nation’s textbook content…

We’ve already lost them.

We have failed the students more thoroughly than a grade on a report card ever can.

Books, etc.: Remembering Suzette Haden Elgin

A few days ago a friend informed me that Suzette Haden Elgin had died. This was not unexpected. She was almost 80, and had been in ill health for a while, and suffering with dementia, along with other disabilities.

I never met her, except through her work, but I mourn her passing.

Suzette was a trained linguist, a language maven, and a writer. She is perhaps best known for her books in the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense series. Though not as well-known as Deborah Tannen’s or John Gray’s works, Suzette’s are practical, straightforward, and supremely useful.

She was interested in many aspects of language. She thought and wrote about language and religion, language and politics (especially framing), language and women’s issues, language and perception, language and culture, and more.

For many years she kept up a Live Journal and two newsletters. Under the LJ name Ozarque, she stimulated thought and discussion of her many fields of interest. These were lively, educational, interactive, and fascinating forums in the way that Live Journal blogs are meant to be and seldom are.

She was a writer of science fiction novels, stories, and poetry. I was astounded by her Native Tongue series. (Who besides me could possibly be interested in feminist linguistic science fiction? Many people, it turns out.)

In the Native Tongue series, Suzette described a newly created “women’s language” called Láadan. She and others pursued the idea and constructed a grammar, a dictionary, and lessons available online – way before anyone tried to do the same with Klingon.

She worked on new fiction until the dementia descended. In her LJ, she would sometimes post poems and songs (particularly Christmas carols) and solicit feedback from her audience, sometimes incorporating their suggestions into the piece. The Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Elgin Awards are given in her memory.

She attended science fiction conventions, where she could meet and interact with her readers. One she often attended was WisCon in Madison, WI, the premier feminist science fiction convention, and in 1986 was one of their Guests of Honor.

On a more personal note, she once took the time to give me feedback on a piece I was writing about bullying, also a concern of hers.

She was a kind, humane, quirky, quick-witted, creative, varied, engaged, humorous, brave lady and a brilliant scholar and writer. I will miss her and her work. The world is poorer for her passing, but richer for her legacy.

Those Who Will Not See

Yesterday I shared a post on Facebook that I thought was awesome. Here it is, so you can contemplate it too: http://momastery.com/blog/2014/01/30/share-schools/

The comments I got on it were things like “Wow! Brilliant!” and “This would have changed my life.”

A friend posted exactly the same essay, and here are some of the responses he got, interspersed with comments I made.

COMMENT: Wow, a math teacher that does not understand how game theory works. That is kind of sad.

COMMENT: It should be noted that the premiss [sic] of revenge is that 1+1=0.

 ME: Why are you debating game theory? This is about the human heart.

COMMENT: If she’s optimizing to prevent a low probability event, she’s making the same mistake add the TSA.

ME: Summarize in no more than three words what this essay is about. Kids. Loneliness. Ostracism. Help the hurting. Pay attention, gang. The point is zooming by somewhere overhead. The TSA is irrelevant to this.

COMMENT: I think that people who think that by mining a lot of data and then look for correlations they can detect who’s being abusive are…naive at best, dangerous at worst.

ME: I’ll take naive over uncaring any day. A teacher that cares is way more important than the TSA, NSA, and all those TLA* people. I’m leaving now before I say something that will get me banned. [The poster blocks or bans anyone who engages in ad hominem or other abusive attacks.]

COMMENT: This is a single teacher data mining, yes. The NSA at least has some experience in doing it correctly…

Of course, there were other people who responded to what the post was really about, but I was appalled at the number who skipped right past the topic in favor of showing off their erudition instead of compassion.

Admittedly, I’m a professional nitpicker, and I have sometimes been guilty of the same thing – ignoring the content of a post to go after incorrect usage of “literally,” for example. But my God, the relentless refusal to address the topic, even when it was pointed out repeatedly, and not just by me, that they were discussing Something Else Entirely. With rants so long they were essays themselves, and links to articles on the NSA and how to avoid being arrested. (The thread included comments on profiling as well.)

I have been a victim of bullying, etc. So have many of the people who commented when I shared the essay, and when they passed it along. So have many people who tried to get my friend’s comment thread back on topic.

And so, too, I suspect, were at least some of the people who nattered on about statistical analysis and all the other extraneous matters. I cannot imagine them going through school without getting taunted, threatened, or beaten up for being a “smarty-pants,” “brainiac,” or “know-it-all,” or some words less polite. And I suspect that those people are in MASSIVE denial, still trying to build themselves a shield of words and facts and statistics and analysis and theories and showy buzzwords.

I would tell them (if they would listen, which they likely wouldn’t) that this strategy Won’t Work. I know. I’ve tried it. Again and again. And yet again.

What is that definition of mental illness? Oh yes. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

So what’s the point? The topic, as it were? I may be crazy. But by that definition, so are they. And I’m getting treatment for it, not reinforcing myself with a feedback loop. Oops. Did I just get pedantic and jargon-y? I’ll stop now and apologize.

*TLA = Three-Letter Acronym