Friday, 13 April 2012

Bullying

A new Canadian documentary has come out: Bully.  It follows several children in their teens who are being bullied at school and includes the sad tale of one teen who committed suicide to escape his bullies.  I’ll be honest and say I haven’t seen it and I frankly have no desire to see it.  I understand the pain those children feel and don’t particularly want to go through the emotional stress.

I was bullied quite severely as a child and as a teen and it was awful.  The adults I had been taught to trust (teachers, administrators, other parents) either turned a blind eye or actively encouraged the bullies in their torment.  There were a few who tried some sadly-misguided techniques to improve the situation, like one teacher who took the biggest bully and put her desk next to mine and suggested that she could help me with my penmanship.  Clearly the teacher in question had watched too many after-school specials where the bully and the victim become friends after finding some common ground.

As the years passed, I was pleased to see so many anti-bullying initiatives springing up.  Perhaps foolishly, I thought maybe my generation would be the last one to suffer under both bullies and adult indifference.  Bullies will likely always be with us but they cannot reach the heights of cruelty without tacit adult support.  With a watchful adult who is ready to intervene, there is a limit to what a child can do.

Maybe there are schools where this is happening but Bully shows a different story.  The same tired old justifications of “kids will be kids” and universal punishments where the bullied are punished to the same degree as the bullies.  It makes me sad.  Not even angry.  Just tired and worn out sad.

There’s too much pressure from parents who don’t want their children’s records sullied with accurate accounts of their activities.  It’s too difficult and too expensive to make sure the staff deals with individual cases.  And finally, it is true that kids will be kids.  Kids and teens don’t have particularly developed empathy and understanding of consequences.  Which makes them some of the most vicious and persistent bullies.  They have no sense of when to back off.  If it’s funny to make some kid cry, then they’ll do it again and again, upping the ante every time to make sure they get the reaction they want.

Bullies aren’t monsters.  For the most part, they aren’t even bad kids.  But what they’re doing is inexcusable.  It’s up to the adults to provide perspective and boundaries.  It’s natural for toddlers to ignore street signals.  That’s why adults walk with them.  We know that children cannot regulate themselves so it’s up to the grown ups.  Bullying isn’t any different.

And for those who suffer the daily torments, a sympathetic ear can make a whole lot of difference.  It can feel as if the whole world is against you and will always be against you.  It erodes your confidence, making you an even easier target.  The messages the bullies fling with such casual indifference end up being written on the victims’ very bones, to be internally repeated long after the bullies have forgotten.  It takes a lot of positive messages to undo it but every bit counts.  It’s easier to believe in yourself if you know someone else believes in you, too.

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