A parent came to me not so long ago with a story about her 9-year-old daughter being bullied by “mean girls.” There was a small pack of them. They went around together and laughed at kids. One thing they did was to try to trick girls into feeling stupid then they all would laugh at them. For example, they’d come up to me and say “Where’s Joanie?” Naturally, I’d be confused. Then they’d all laugh at me. According to the parent, the “mean girls” picked on certain girls and recruited others to join their group.
We all know what bullying is and I’m sure we’ve all dealt with it at one point or another—whether at school, at work, or on the street. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, surveys indicate that as many as half of all children are bullied at some time during their school years, and at least 10% are bullied on a regular basis. Wikipedia says that 60-80% of children are bullied. Some of us may have even bullied others—a little sister or a weaker kid or someone at work.
But when we hear about bullying and, especially when it’s being done to our own precious little child, what do we want to do? I dare you to say that you haven’t wanted to help them out, call their parents, tell the teacher, or advocate putting a stop to bullying altogether. Of course, we want to help, but should we? The question is: what does a victim of bullying need to do to succeed? And what is succeeding? Is it stopping the bullying? Handling the bullying? Fighting back?
I would suggest that bullying is a fact of life. It has been going on since the beginning of time and it will continue going on until the end of time. It is a part of human nature and we are not going to be able to stop it. What we can do is figure out how to respond to it in a way that helps us come out ahead.
First of all, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to reduce bullying. Of course, that is a commendable goal. Having rules about it isn’t going to do the trick though. Bullies are expert at looking good in front of the enforcers. We’ve all seen the kid who mocks a child shamelessly as soon as the teacher steps out of the room and turns into an “angel” when the teacher walks back in. Rules only stop behavior as much as they are enforced.
It’s the culture that can squelch bullying, not rules. We would need to have a society that doesn’t reward bullies, that actually punishes them or banishes them from groups. Unfortunately, our society rewards bullies a great deal. Think about the leaders of our country, our corporations, and our role models in the entertainment business. A recent Boston Globe article has some great examples of bullies in the media.
So, what can we do? We can strengthen the victims of bullying. We can help them become stronger, more resilient, and powerful. We can teach them not to let bullies get under their skin. Wait—you probably think I am being much too callous, but hear me out. Don’t hit me for what I’m about to say! But, seriously, don’t you think that we’ve become softer from generation to generation? How many of you adults were protected from bullies when you were children? I know I wasn’t. I had to protect myself.
In fact, when I was four years old, I was continuously getting bullied by a four-year-old boy who lived next door. My parents kept telling me to stand up for myself and my dad even taught me how to punch. The boy’s parents agreed, but none of the parents resolved the situation for me. They waited for me to get fed up enough that one day I finally pushed the boy. I pushed him so hard that he fell to the floor—in front of all four parents! They applauded and he never bothered me again. We all learned something that day, and no one was hurt.
Okay, okay, I’m not suggesting that we should throw our children into a gladiator ring and watch them fight it out. However, there is something to letting kids work things out on their own. When parents jump in to the rescue and fight their kids’ battles for them, the kids not only miss learning opportunities, but they also become disempowered. They learn that they can’t fight their own battles. They become victims. Sometimes they feel so entirely helpless that they end up harming themselves or others as they try to dull the pain or lash out in frustration. Drugs, violence, cutting, eating disorders, and other harmful behaviors are more prevalent than ever before, especially in even younger populations than ever before.
We don’t want bullies, but more importantly, we don’t want victims. To fight bullies, we need to empower the victims to stand up to the bullies and to have the self confidence to let bullying roll off them. So what if someone says you’re stupid on the internet! So what if someone calls you a “nerd” in front of their friends! (Of course, if you end up with broken bones, that is a completely different story.) People need to be able to handle a little teasing, a little tumble, and some meanness. Believe me, it doesn’t get any nicer out in the real world. And, at some point, parents and principals won’t be there to jump in to the rescue.
As for the 9-year-olds, that was a disappointing story. It is no fun to hear that “mean girls” are as young as nine these days. I hope that our society decides that we can do better than that. In the meantime, the rest of us have to be strong and teach our children to be strong so that they can take care of themselves when bad things happen—because bad things will happen.