Friday, July 8, 2011

On Bullying...

There has been a lot of recent media attention to the problem of bullying. This morning I watched an interview with a 15 year old bully who pled guilty to the charges brought against her. The case she was involved in was dreadful. The victim in this case was a fellow 15 year old student who was new to the country. She had moved here from Ireland with her family. Instead of being welcomed she became a target of ridicule and hate because she happened to end up dating 2 very popular (and desired) boys. Because of this, a group of 5 girls decided to target her and make her life miserable. The bullying eventually led to this young woman deciding that it would be better to take her own life. Her last communication with her mother was a distressed text message saying, "They might as well just hand me a noose."

The 15 year old bully that had come forward to speak after pleading guilty to charges related to the bullying acts that led to her classmate's suicide had merely this to say (something she kept repeating). She was frustrated that she had been painted as a ring leader when in reality she was just "helping a friend" and if she had known that her victim had other problems she probably would have helped her instead...

Okay...

So...she was "helping a friend"? I'm sorry, but if she was my child and was using that as a defense, I would likely tell her that its time that she gets new friends.

I think as parents, there is a desire and want to believe the best about a child. They don't believe that their child would do anything to harm or hurt anyone else. The unfortunate thing is, this attitude causes many people to not come forward when they are being emotionally or physically abused by their peers. I'm not saying that parents shouldn't go to bat for their children, but what I am saying is that perhaps they need to take a step back and ask around if there have been any witnesses to their child exhibiting bully behavior. The truth is, we all have our agency, and we learn to exercise that agency at an early age. The child that you see at home may not be the child you send to school because they may make choices and decisions that you don't agree with when you're not around.

I was the victim of bullying all through junior high. I was miserable. I hated going to school. My saving graces were that I was a very good student with exceptional grades so when I felt like I needed a few "mental" days, my mom was always willing to let me stay home and relax, and I was a teacher's pet and was able to use their classrooms to escape to ridicule. I was barked at, mooed at, sworn at, called horrible names that I don't care to repeat, and pushed up against lockers every day...all because I was a newcomer to a small town who didn't have the right last name, and then to make matters worse I wouldn't "go out" with a popular boy who claimed to like me... funny, if he liked me so much, it seems to make much more sense to try to be kind than to get his friends to treat me like garbage in an attempt to force me into a relationship... I tried to be friendly with my attackers, I even would help them with their school work, but it never worked, they never relented.

I was super excited for a new start when we moved before I started high school...only to be bullied again for being smart...sure, everyone was my friend when they needed help with an assignment or wanted to be in my group for a group project, but as soon as that was over I was made fun of and called names.

My point isn't to tell you I was bullied and have a pity party...my point is- I never said a word. I continued to pretend everything was fine even though I hated my surroundings and the people in them. My mom knew something was up, but could never get it out of me. Living in small towns, where I didn't have the right "last name", I figured that if I came forward and said something about my attackers that no one would believe me.

The one factor that makes this worse is that the bullying is getting worse, and the bullies are starting younger and younger. Shows like Jackass (for an example) make stupid acts or very dangerous pranks seem hilarious...kids are catching on and following in suit because they believe it will make them cool, or like their famous idols. One example comes from an episode of Doctor Phil earlier this week. A 14 year old boy was (allegedly) held down and forced to get a tattoo on his buttocks of two foul words (so foul they couldn't even say them on the air) and little pictures to accompany them. His bullies, a group of four 18 year old boys, have been charged with child abuse and other charges as a result. The bully that just got out of jail came on the show to apparently "apologize" and his mother came on to defend him and say that she believed her son...she alleged that the 14 year old boy wanted the tattoos and that he knew what they would say, that it was a joke... The 14 year old admits to going to have a tattoo, but he believed it would be a celtic cross on his arm with his girlfriend's name on it...at tattoo he apparently wanted. The older boys had promised to stop bullying him if he did it...so he came and ended up not getting what he came for...however, this older boy has alleged that the 14 year old boy was begging for the tattoo and wanted..

What resulted was a big mess where the bully's mom confronted the victim's parents refusing to believe that her son was guilty of what he had pled guilty to...she was trying to turn him into the victim...the apology that her son gave, as a result, seemed to not be a complete apology and was not accepted or believed by the victim or his parents...

Where did they come up with the tattoo stunt? I haven't seen much of Jackass (my brother used to watch it) but what I have seen would tell me that the idea these bullies came up with was similar to something that had been done on the show...or shows like it.

Why do kids think they need to do things like this to be "cool"? Well, I know self-esteem has a lot to do with it...which is what I used to tell myself in junior high and high school...I would remind myself that obviously these kids don't have very high opinions of themselves if they feel like they need to do crap like that to other people...but there is more to it than that...every child is an individual with individual needs, wants, and experiences...

Bottom line- parents need to be parents...not that all bullies have absent parents, but perhaps they have parents that are more interested than being their friend and buying their affections than giving them precious time and the discipline and boundaries that we all desire as human beings. Kids need boundaries, adults need boundaries...it is proven that humans don't like to live in chaos...without boundaries kids will create their own rules- and those rules may not always be the smartest rules if they don't have someone in their home reinforcing right and wrong.

I'm not saying it is all the fault of the parents...believe me, I've covered that kids have the right to make their own decisions, and they do (it all starts with the terrible twos and gets worse from there) but what I am saying is that there needs to be an effort to make sure that children get more discipline than what a teacher or principle can give them.

I remember an experience when I was in 1st grade. A friend of mine had brought some snapper firecrackers to school (you know, those little white things that pop when you throw them at the ground?) We were playing with them at recess and I had one or two left over in my pocket...a pocket with a hole in it...The fire crackers managed to make it until we were in the line for lunch when they fell out of my pocket and snapped. A child in my class had recently moved back from the middle east with his military father and was especially shaken- to the point he passed out. My teacher roughly grabbed me and made me miss lunch...not only did I have to go through the rest of the day hungry, but I was almost kicked out of school because my teacher was so mad (she believed I had thrown them intentionally, but I hadn't) My parents stuck up for me, and my principle believed me because my story never changed (usually with kids that age the story changes a lot when they are lying to get out of trouble). I was issued a citation, which was basically 1 strike out of the 3 strikes and you're out rule. My teacher was furious, and made the rest of my 1st grade life miserable because she still believed I lied.

In spite of the fact that my parents believed me and went to bat for me, I was still punished. I knew better than to play with fire crackers without an adult. I was grounded from friends for 3 weeks and lost the privilege to ride my bike for the rest of the autumn as a result...the point is, my parents didn't just leave it at the school's disciplinary action, they took it home to reinforce that while they believed I wasn't completely in the wrong, I still had done something wrong to put me in that situation.

They did the same for my brother who was suspended for 3 days for fighting when he was in junior high. He didn't throw the first punch, but let's just say he definitely won the fight...because the instigator left with a black eye and my brother left with a sore fist the school opted to suspend him for 3 days and the instigator for only 1. My brother spent the next 3 days doing chores around the house all day long- no television, no friends, he had to do things he hated like mowing the lawn and weeding...and he was also grounded from his video games for the next month. He was told that while he didn't start the fight, he should have walked away and found an adult to end the situation instead of finishing it himself. He was told that we don't solve our problems with our fists.

The instigator had been bullying him constantly, my parents finally took action and talked to the boy's parents. Aaron apologized for giving him a black eye, and his parents ended up hearing my brother's side of the story. While they didn't believe that their son would be a bully, they tried to be understanding and talked to their son about it. Eventually, the boy was suspended for starting another fight and bullying another kid and his parents made it a point to call and apologize for their disbelief when my brother came forward.

In the end, we need to find a way to help kids to feel confident to come forward if they are being bullied. We need to have some type of forum where they can say that they are being hurt, and parents need to be willing to do a little investigative work instead of jumping right on the defensive if their child stands accused.

Or maybe we need to stop the focus on bullying all together...Bear with me for a bit...

At one of the schools where I did observations and work for my Teacher Work Sample they were running a program called Rachel's Challenge...but the staff and faculty had moved beyond having the assembly and hoping it would work...they set up a few "Kindness Stations" in all the hallways. Students were encouraged to fill out a paper if a fellow student had done something kind for them. They would be recognized in their homeroom class for their acts of kindness every day. Exceptional acts of kindness were recognized at school assemblies or over the PA system after the pledge of allegiance. This school (a middle school) saw a dramatic decrease in the amount of bullying cases they had to deal with. Why? Because time and time again psychological studies have proven that people respond more to positive reinforcement of good behaviors as opposed to constantly punishing bad behaviors.

Don't get me wrong, they still had their bullying cases. I was having a chat with the school secretary one day when one very angry father came in to talk to the principle and convince him not to suspend his child for bullying behaviors. He was insistent that his child would never do anything so horrible...but the bottom line was that there were witnesses and the principle took the zero tolerance policy seriously. The secretary said that before they implemented Rachel's Challenge and their own special additions to it those situations had been all too frequent.

Many psychologists believe that violence is a learned behavior. Y es, we do have the fight or flight reflex, but a child doesn't hit unless they've witnessed violence and hitting themselves, or have been hit themselves...there are many studies that have proven this. Perhaps bullying is a learned behavior, its either learned from an abusive parent or from a sibling, the media and violent video games...we need to be aware of what our children are witnessing, we need to make sure that their siblings are setting a good example, and we need to be aware of the games they play and the shows they watch...too many parents will just sit their child in front of the television because its an easy babysitter and they won't pay attention to what they are witnessing...if they were more aware of child psychology maybe they won't be so prone to using technological babysitters...

Kids that could be victimized (which is in essence every child) need to be aware that ending their lives is never the answer. They need to know there is an adult presence that can help them come up with a solution, whether that solution is home school, transferring schools, or trying to have a conference with teachers, the bullies picking on them, and administration to find an answer....

Ultimately, I don't know if there is an answer to end bullying. I understand that we will deal with bullies for our whole lives...believe me, I've dealt with a few at the collegiate level..however, as adults we have more tools and emotional stability (hopefully) to deal with bully related issues. Most adult bullying is a result of one party being insecure and needing to feel superior to someone they view as a threat to them...

However, adult bullies are usually smart enough not to start physical fights (USUALLY) or do something to physically harm someone else (USUALLY...when speaking in generalizations there is always an exception to the rule)... I guess my biggest worry is that bullies that are allowed to cause physical harm, or pull elaborate stunts to belittle their victims will carry on that behavior into adulthood creating a much more dangerous world.

The world is getting worse every day...I know that one person alone will likely be unable to stop the trend, but my hope is that if enough people get smart, get active, and try to be better that the world will be better...

Hugs and hope until next time.

1 comment:

Molly and Joe Gutke said...

I actually really appreciated this post...I had a bit of bullying when I was in grade school, but not to the degree and length that you endured. You'd think since I had been bullied, and heard about my younger sister getting bullied growing up, it would have been easier for me to stand for someone I saw getting bullied my senior year... I didn't say anything any time he would get bullied before and during class. It was tough because the whole class would laugh along and even the teacher found it amusing-which I find so incredibly appalling. It was my responsibility to stand up for this kid and he ended up killing himself. I have never forgiven myself and I view myself as much as a contributor as the people taunting him even though I didn't say anything. No, ESPECIALLY because I didn't say anything... It's hard to stand up to people in a crowd when it could turn on you, but it's the right thing to do! I wish I had had the courage to do what was right and stand up to the students bullying him. Not only do we need to teach our children to not bully someone, but we need to teach them to stand up to bullies and help those that are beaten down daily. Teach them there's nothing wrong with being different or smart.(suprisingly, I've had people in the workplace try to belittle me for being smart, yet they were always coming to me for help...who woulda thought??? You'd think they'd be able to see how screwed up that is!)For those bullies, those will only be the best 4 years of their life, because being smart in the real world is a good thing. It's so strange how they think being smart is something to make fun of...Bullying is a very serious and growing problem these days and I hope people become more aware of its effects. Thank you again for this post...