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?