This month 1000 Voices for Compassion is focused specifically on bullying. I’d been unable to come up with a coherent piece on the subject, and I’m certainly not an expert in the field, so I was thinking about giving it a pass, but as I was going through some quotes this morning, two of them kind of jumped out at me, so I decided to get back on track.
“A broken bone can heal, but the wound a word opens can fester forever.”
— Jessamyn West
Perhaps because of my own, somewhat limited, experiences, when I think if bullying, I tend to think less about physical bullying, and more about the harder-to-detect/easier-to-ignore psychological types. Physical bullying leaves bruises, scars, and other tangible proofs. It makes it obvious to others that there’s something wrong. And that obviousness can make it possible for an outsider to try to intervene. That they often don’t – because they either can’t or won’t – is a topic for another day.
When we were children, we all learned to chant ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me’. But that’s not true – they have the power to do lasting damage.
When I was a kid, long before the information age, non-physical bullying took the form of name calling and taunting, ostracism, whispers, and passed notes in class. The victim was usually perceived to be ‘different’ somehow – too smart, too dumb, too fat, too thin, too awkward. Kids can be incredibly mean, particularly in the middle school years, and more particularly when they are busy seeking acceptance of their own.
Now the realm of adolescent (and stalled-at-13-adult) cruelty extends to cyberbullying and internet trolling. Frequently anonymous, and sometimes with a disturbing amount of adult help, social media is used as a weapon. Don’t like a kid at school? Lie about them on Facebook, threaten them on Twitter, post doctored photos on Instagram. The possibilities are endless. Don’t like what someone posted on Facebook, commented on an article, or wrote in a blog? Threaten them in the comments, cyberstalk them – and if you’re very unstable, find out where they live. The information age, which has brought us closer together in many ways, has brought with it a wide-reaching way of bullying people. And made it easier than ever to do it anonymously.
Some kids, some adults, are just more resilient than others. They are temperamentally capable of riding through the painful years with minimal damage to show for it – except perhaps lingering food or trust issues. Other kids, other adults, do not have that same level of resiliency. These are the kids that need much stronger support systems, but often don’t have them – or perhaps more importantly, don’t perceive them to be there. When the bullying is not physical, how often do we echo our own parents and teachers by telling our own children, to just ignore it. Walk away. Don’t let them know they’ve gotten to you – they just want a reaction. Sometimes that does work, but it can be incredibly difficult advice to follow. What adolescents need, as they pull away from their parents and forge their own identities, is acceptance from their peers. Some kids, with not only less natural resiliency, but also an underlying psychiatric issue, like depression, are completely unable to cope with the bullying, and the harassment, and act out – to harm themselves or others.
I am a big fan of not-micromanaging my kids – I hope that they have absorbed enough from me and their father that they are able to make good decisions, and to deal with the wide assortment of things that life throws at us. This seems to be contrary to what’s considered to be good parenting these days. And the schools might possibly have ‘zero tolerance’ policies toward too many things. When my older daughter was six I received a call from the Vice Principal to let me know that a boy in her class, who was standing behind her in line after lunch, has flipped up the back of her skirt. An incident that she barely noticed (and she was wearing heavy tights, anyway). He wanted to let me know that they’d spoke to the boy and notified his parents so I was not to worry. I kept a straight face, but I wasn’t worried, wasn’t disturbed, and figured that as long as it didn’t become a daily event none of us had anything to worry about. And it didn’t, and we didn’t. Because these were six year olds. There is something to be said for letting kids work things out themselves – we should, whenever possible, do that. Enemies can, strangely, become friends virtually overnight – just as the reverse can happen. Kids are still figuring themselves out – they have to learn to deal with life, and the other people in it, in order to survive adulthood. After all, you can’t run to mom the first time your boss criticizes something you’ve done. But we, as the responsible adults, also have an obligation to pay attention, and figure out for ourselves when it might be time to ask if we can help.
“In helping others, we shall help ourselves, for whatever good we give out completes the circle and comes back to us.”
— Flora Edwards
I certainly don’t have the answers – parenting didn’t come with a handbook. Neither did navigating thrrough adolescence. Or surviving adulthood.
Bu I do believe that, as fully functioning adult humans, we do have a responsibility to help when we can. If we see the signs of emotional bullying, or cyberstalking, we do have an obligation to speak out – especially when we know, or suspect, that the victim is particularly vulnerable. We also need to be cognizant of our own word choices, especially with children, because even for the more resilient among us, those words can still remain in our heads, coloring our behavior, for decades. Compassion should be for itself alone, and not for gain, or to make ourselves feel better. But the end result of helping others is that you also help yourself to grow. And the kindness you show, will in turn be shown, most times, by the recipient to someone else. And so the circle grows.