Sad and Broken

Carter and I have enjoyed some time out of time – two weeks of puttering, chatting, playing, and watching an unhealthy amount of Little House on the Prairie. We stuck with LHOTP DVDs because the mid-term election campaign ads on TV leave me with the desire to run around to all the campaign headquarters in town and do some hard-core knee punching.

Really, are there no adults running for office this year? It’s all nanny nanny boo boo and did to, did not, did to, did not! on my TV these days.

Even in the midst of my internet sabbatical and self-imposed broadcast television limits, the news of the recent bullying-related suicides found its way to me. I am heartbroken, but even more than that, I am furious.

Is this the best we can do? Are we still so afraid of the differences among us that we need to sacrifice young people to the monster that is our bigotry?

When I wrote “The Lessons My Bullies Taught Me” last spring, I did so with a vague assumption that things have improved in most public schools when it comes to bullying. I guess because my kids haven’t had any of the problems that I had, and the schools they went to seemed so much more responsive than they had been when I went there, it was easy for me to believe that the world became enlightened between my childhood and now.

How wrong I was.

But I’m not the only one. Our cultural narrative about bullying has a false assumption in it, and that assumption is this: kids who are bullies are bad kids from bad families. If kids say or do bigoted things, their parents taught them that. If kids are unkind, rude, aggressive, or mean, their parents are, too. Nice kids from nice families aren’t bullies.

My bullies were nice girls from nice families. They weren’t troublemakers at school; they all went on to have successful lives.

Whatever they have learned at home, by the time they go to middle school, our wildly inconsistent and confusing culture, plus their peer relationships, are exerting enormous pressures on them. We help them develop a moral compass, but for teenagers, it’s hard to know when the needle is pointing in the right direction.

I don’t know why some kids become targets of bullies and others don’t. I’m not sure exactly what it was about me that drew my bullies’ attention, but I do know that any child can be bullied, and any child can be a bully.

Regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity; regardless of race or ethnicity; regardless of the size or shape of one’s body or the color of one’s skin; regardless of religious beliefs, personality quirks, tics, attractiveness, style of dress, or any other factor, the first guiding principle for living together in the world is this: everybody safe.

It’s time we acknowledged that children hurting other children (physically, emotionally, spiritually, or mentally) is not a rite of passage. It is not a normal part of childhood, or something that separates the men from the boys. Being bullied doesn’t toughen kids up; being a bully isn’t leadership. I don’t know exactly what the right response is (although, of course, I am full to the top of ideas), but I know for certain that ignoring the problem and expecting that children will work it out on their own isn’t it.

People can break, as Billy Lucas, Tyler Clementi, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, and Raymond Chase have recently broken. I survived my bullying experience, but it didn’t enrich my life or build character or make me stronger; it wounded me, and it wounded at least one of my bullies.

I hope with all my heart that we will see some major changes in our schools, and soon, but in the meantime, I want to have a conversation about what we, as parents (or as adults recalling our own childhoods), can do to improve the school experience for our children. Has your child been bullied? What did you do? How did your parents protect you (or how do you wish they had protected you)? Have you (or will you) communicated with your kids about bullying? Has your child bullied? How did you respond? Were you a bully? Do you know why? What could your parents have done to stop you?

How do we keep everybody safe?

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Sad and Broken

31 thoughts on “Sad and Broken

  1. I don’t have many answers as to how we can change the schools to prevent bullying and such tragedies. It breaks my heart too, and makes me mad. Yes.
    When I was young I was not bullied, but challenged at times — because I was a bit of an odd little girl. It did not go very far, but occasionally it hurt bad enough that I cried and wondered if I was the problem, since I had very few friends.

    Is education the key? Proactively teach the kids from a young age, what’s OK and what is not. So many parents are just slacking as it is.

    So sad.

    1. Yes, education is one piece, but there is so much more!

      The first thing is that adults have to take it seriously. There is no chance that kids will understand that bullying is a big deal if adults makes excuses for it.

  2. I don’t have the answers. I blogged about it yesterday and all I know is that based on the overwhelmingly positive feedback, people agree that things have to change. A couple of my commenters had suggestions and one in particular who’d been a victim said the best and most influential interveners were other peers.

    I believe we have to teach our children to stand up for others. To intervene when they see bullying and mistreatment of others. It can be scary, yes. But bullies are almost always egged on by the mob mentality, the feeling of power they get from seeing the fear in the face of the one they abuse. We have to take that power from them. We have to take the mob away from them.

    I’ve heard witnessing the abuse of a bully to witnessing a train wreck, the “you can’t look away” mentality. But someone has to look away, to break the trance, so they can look back and stand up and say no. stop. you can’t do this.

    I’m rapidly approaching rambling territory but just wanted to say, I’m delurking today because this has to stop. And I don’t have the answers. But I want to be part of the conversation. I won’t let my daughter grow up not knowing what’s right. What’s happening now is not right.

    1. Yes, if any kid had ever tried to stand up for me, that would have helped. I felt so terrible alone, and as it went on, more and more kids started to join in in little ways. Just a little support would have meant so much.

      I don’t know how to get kids to be brave. My teenagers seem to feel that their own social situations are so precarious, they don’t want to risk that. They were much braver when they were younger. I watched my eldest son protect a younger boy from some bullies at the park when he was about 11. He’s almost 17 and I think he would do that now, but around 13-15 years old? I kind of doubt it.

      Of course, part of the issue is big schools and not enough supervision, but correcting that would cost money. We don’t like to spend our money on kids; we’d rather spend it on wars and prisons.

      Sigh. I better stop before I tie myself in a knot!

  3. I could not agree more. It has to stop, and we all have to be involved in stopping it.

    I was bullied in the third grade, by two girls who pretended to be my “best friends.” The bullying got so intense that I stopped being able to eat, developed severe anxiety attacks (at age 9), and even jumped off our porch, 12 feet above ground. (No, I wasn’t trying to commit suicide, but I also didn’t really mind if I got hurt, if that makes sense.)

    At the time I was in an excellent public elementary school. My parents saw what was going on and got me to give them all the details. They called the girls’ parents (who were hostile and defensive), and spoke to my teacher (who never batted an eyelash). Then, when the school year ended, they put me in a tiny alternative private school where I would, hopefully, be safe. And I was.

    I have had anxiety issues about friendships and complicated relationships with female peers ever since the bullying. It did NOT make me stronger. It gave me lifelong problems.

    What my parents did was good. But not available to anyone who can’t afford to switch to an alternative school. Which means I have no real ideas. But I do think that, to the extent parents can afford them (financially or emotionally), drastic measures are usually the best course. Bullies generally grow out of their behaviors (one of mine is now a doctor who volunteers in third-world countries), but not overnight. Kids need to be REMOVED from their tormentors, or their tormentors from them. However that’s possible.

    1. Yes, schools that change schedules to keep bullies and their victims separate can help situations a lot! If we take this seriously (many adults, incl. school administrators, still don’t), and get creative, kids can be safe at school.

      It’s a communication problem. Some kids have not been sufficiently informed that acting like a jerk isn’t OK, no matter what there is about your target that you don’t like and no matter what the people around you are doing.

  4. When I was in grammar school, there was a young kid – small, angular, wore steel tipped shoes – who was the worst bully I’d ever seen. He was in my grade. He was horrid – he would say the cruelest things (including once taunting a girl whose mother had commit suicide by telling her that she’d killed her own mother.) He taunted my little brother for being in Camp Fire (which was co-ed) by calling him a “girl scout.” I once caught him beating the crap out of his little sister on the way to school. I intervened. I probably socked him for some reason or another at some point. I had many a bruise on my shins from his steel-toed shoes.

    He had an older brother and a younger sister (the one I rescued). They were lovely. I had to be in his home once, as the older brother and I and a few other kids had a project together, and his mom (never met his dad) was perfectly kind.

    But he…he was horrid. Violent and mean and cruel. And those of us who knew all three kids were so confused.

    Now, this was not a case of an otherwise nice kid who ended up in a warp-universe due to adolescence, peer-pressure and poor supervision. This kid was broken.

    And we were all afraid of him, and adults did nearly nothing.

    He ended up dead, hanged himself in a cell in the juvenile detention when he was 17.

    So no one else suffers at his hands, any longer.

    He was broken. And we were afraid. And the adults did nearly nothing.

    1. Wow. That’s tragic. How awful.

      The worst part is the adults who did nearly nothing! I mean, I understand that they probably had NO idea what to do, but that’s no excuse. Wow.

      Trying to imagine what life was like for his little sister.

      1. I’m thinking of how horrible life must have been for this horribly broken child. He had to have chaos in his young mind and no ability to stop it. Poor child, someone should have intervened, someone should have helped him so he could have stopped hurting those around him.
        There is a time when it seems people may be “beyond” help and yes I totally agree we are each responsible for our own choices but this child sounds like he was broken and when you are broken you generally don’t know how to fix yourself.

  5. First of all, parents it is our responsibility to raise children with respect. Respect of themselves and of others. We need to be the influence in their lives and take the tough road of discipline when we see our kids hanging out with the wrong crowd. Maybe we move them to a new school, homeschool them for a time, or teach them how to suffer well. Life is hard, and not everyone gets a “A” for trying. When life “bullies” us as adults lets show our kids how to handle it. Our world has gotten soft and tolerated ourselves into this mess.I got bullied everyday of my life, but it also came from my siblings because my parents didn’t pay attention. Lets commit to paying attention.

    1. I think there are times when we need to teach our kids to tough something out (or “suffer well” as you put it), but bullying is not one of those times. I’m not talking about occasional teasing, which most kids give and get at least a few times, but systematic bullying.

      That kind of suffering warps kids.

  6. When I was in middle school, I was the kid everyone picked on. Not just light picking on either…tormenting. At the time, I was one of the shortest and smallest kids around (I’m 6’5″ now ha!) and so I’m sure I made an easy target.

    I remember when I first saw the media footage regarding Columbine. It was within hours of the event and so we as a nation didn’t really have much history with dealing with it. But I did. I remember thinking “Ya, I can totally understand why someone would do that.” I didn’t agree with their actions, but I could understand them. I know that is really politically IN-correct to say, but…

    Lucky for me, I found a way to survive those years. Later in life, I found a way to address the deep wounds that were created and find healing. I still hurt when I see how bad bullying affects others and grieve when I see yet more shootings and retaliation.

    I also don’t know the answer. I’m a father of two daughters and am expecting a son in February. Bullying is one of the topics that my wife and I have talked about numerous times. If any child of mine starts going through what I did…I will have no problem removing them from that environment. Private school, home school, I don’t know…I just intend to protect them better than I felt at that time.

    As an epilogue to my mini-story, I have gotten in contact with the main bully ring-leader from my past as an adult. He is now a pastor and is deeply ashamed and grieved by what he did when he was younger. I told him that I forgave him and set him free from any guilt long before we spoke. For me, forgiveness was the only means to freedom.

    (This is quite possibly the MOST serious comment I think I’ve ever left on a blog.)

    1. Well then, my blog is honored to receive your most serious comment ever!

      Yes, one of my bullies contacted me last spring to apologize. It was amazing and was a huge help in my own healing process.

      And I know exactly what you mean about the violent response to bullying. I never considered such a thing, but I fantasized for years about hurting my bullies and a few key school personnel. There is no excuse for violence, but I can understand how people get to that place.

      Yup, I made a two-part commitment to my kids (They’re 17, 15, 14, and 8.) many years ago. First, I would protect them from being bullied no matter what I had to do, including pulling them out to homeschool them. Second, they would never be bullies and if I found out about them bullying other children, I would be attending school with them while wearing a giant purple clown wig.

    1. I can’t even tell you how hard it has been for me at times to send my kids to school. When they started middle school, I felt like I was throwing them into the lion’s cage with pockets full of raw meat. Thank God we haven’t (so far) run into any significant problems. The one issue we had with my daughter when she was in 4th grade, the teacher was on top of the situation like a fierce papa bear (I’m all about the wild animal metaphors tonight, huh?). I fell in love with him a little bit for that.

  7. I know, Ad.

    My middle guy, who you know about, was taunted daily, and we had to pull him out of school and teach him at home.

    People, parents: do parents know their kids are bullies? would they care?

    Who knows.

    It is sad. Where does all the hate come from.

    People, teach your kids to love everyone, or at least try to.

    1. There is so much to be upset about in all these stories, but one is this: some of the bullies’ parents have defended their children’s behavior, saying it’s “just what kids do” or saying the victim should have tried harder to fit in.

      I mean, the kids’ behavior, inexcusable as it is, can at least be partly attributed to mob mentality, brain development, hormones, etc. But the parents? That part blows my mind.

      I’m so glad you’re protecting your boy. I’m sorry that you have to, but I’m glad he knows his parents are in his corner. That’s big.

  8. As a shy, bookish, quirky, small kid, I, too had some experience with bullying (though not nearly to the level yours got to, thank goodness) and it has definitely been high on the “fears” list for my kids. Ethan seems to be holding his own, with only minor incidents from a boy in his grade who is mean to everyone (due to really crappy home situation) so right now it is Jacob I worry the most about. He is currently in a very caring Special Ed school, so I feel reasonably certain that he is OK at school, but I know that inclusive social situations where we are with families who have only typical kids have become more fraught.

    Kids are getting older and meaner and Ethan’s new friends do ask him why his brother is weird/strange, is he crazy?, etc. And I know that Jacob can incite other kids to reactive violence against him by getting way too close to them physically and repeating the same question or phrase over and over again, so I can’t relax and lose sight of him for even a minute in social situations now. The hardest part is that in these situations HE could be perceived by others to be acting like a bully, by being so relentless, when he is actually trying to PLAY with them, but has no idea how, or how inappropriate he is being. When they push him away from them, he likes it, thinks they are playing a game with him so he laughs and comes back for more.

    And no, I have no idea how to fix this yet, other than being right on top of him all the time, which totally sucks. And keep working on it and hope he grows past it soon. I hate to say life was easier when he was MORE autistic and ignored other kids, but you know? It was. Not that I want to go back, but still…

  9. It needs to start at the top and if, as you have seen, the ‘adults’ running for political campaigns can’t publicly model anti-bullying behavior as people running for offices to govern this country, we are in deep sh*t as far as changing it in the kids. Also, the whole culture and mentality in many of the schools needs to change from the top down. In public schools special needs kids often face as many teachers who are bullies as they do other children who bully. I could tell you endless horrifying stories from kids we know involving teachers. It would break your heart.

  10. We need to change the culture of our society, where it’s okay for religious leaders to label certain people as inferior and immoral, for politicians to perpetuate the shame of being different. Where “boys will be boys” is used as an excuse. Where Mean Girls are celebrated. Where parents pose as kids on facebook and myspace to torment other kids. Where schools look the other way because it’s easier.

    Not that I’m AT ALL sensitive about this topic..

  11. The most important thing we can do is believe our kids. When I came home crying every day, my mother thought it was just because I didn’t like my new school & was being difficult.
    I was in grade 3 and knew that the torment I was being put through was not just “problems adjusting” but nobody listened.
    Unfortunately, it continued until I thought that it was normal, and I ended up marrying a bully. When I left him, my mother still thought it was my problem and my fault.
    Listen to your children, and teach them to report bullying they see happening. It’s unfair to think that kids can handle it all themselves.
    But my mother also liked to tell me that she never promised me life would be fair…

  12. I just don’t understand why people are still so afraid of each other. Hate, racism and judgement are all taught IN THE home. People need to wake up and see that things are only getting worse by hating each other. Hasn’t it sunk in yet? I don’t want a world like that for my children. I don’t want a world like that for anyone.

  13. Excellent post. We just need to keep the awareness going. We need to educate our kids. In school and at home. I read a post yesterday about having sensitivity training at school as they do in corporations. Excellent idea. Thanks for this fabulous post.

  14. Wonderful post! So true, too, about bullies being not just from bad families and their being bad kids. Plus, the whole notion that being picked on is some rite of passage and will make you stronger, etc. I despise hearing that, too! Like, yeah, sure my being constantly and consistently picked on sure made my childhood special and made me a great person today! [ROLL OF EYEBALLS]

  15. at the high school level I see way more girls doing (and receiving) the bullying. It is AWFUL. We intervene where we can, but honestly, sometimes the parents don’t see anything wrong with it or they are in denial that it is all their kid doing the bullying.

    There is so much entitlement in our society that it has trickled down to our kids. No one is at fault anymore. Everyone is the victim, so the REAL victim becomes nothing. Even more of a victim.

    I don’t know the answer.

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