I’ve sat on the sidelines reading blogs and articles on bullying for several months. There’s been a lot written about the subject, yet, I really didn’t know how to respond. Still, by some definitions, I was bullied as a kid. At the same time I’m unable to identify with what are defined as bullying consequences. I can’t possibly think of myself as a victim or scarred. So I was actually delighted to see that the opinion pages of the Minneapolis Star Tribune did its readers a great service with the posting of two opposing perspectives on March 18.**
Between the fourth and 7th grades I was occasionally called “sissy,” “baby,” “crybaby,” and even punched a bit. I probably teared up in those situations, but don’t remember. I do remember avoiding those kids. I was a skinny little twerp and at that time not especially muscular or interested in athletics. I said little about my experience to my dad or mother. I remember that one day while on the way home from middle school in 1946 or ’47 three boys cornered and berated me. Was that bullying? The school phys ed teacher happened to drive by and he put and end to it. Then he invited me to join a small group of kids after school that he was teaching to defend themselves. I was invited to drop in if I desired. I never attended his class.
This is bullying. A few years ago a Missouri mother of a student was intimidating a girl via Facebook, pretending to be a student in her daughter’s class. That classmate eventually committed suicide as a result of that extreme intimidation. This kind of harassment—bullying—should never be tolerated. And laws should prohibit it.
Currently, the State of Minnesota is considering legislation to address bullying and harassment. The legislation will provide for a safe and supportive school environment and tools for educators when bullying does occur. Behaviors such as social exclusion, persistent unfriendliness and Facebook remarks are included in the definitions of bullying. Those who engage in these behaviors are considered bullies and the recipients are considered victims.
By these definitions, I was bullied. And, the few knocks on my body were serious acts of bullying. And I was a victim. So these are scarring behaviors? I don’t think so. But how shall I look at these acts?
A few conclusions
Today we react to some children who commit acts nastiness and persistent unfriendliness with a level of intolerance that we wouldn’t consider in other areas of their lives. Underage smoking and drinking, for example, are often ignored. The same is true with minor property crimes.
We assume that children who are bullied (by the above definition) are victims who will be scarred for life. With more than 40 years of counseling and coaching, I have no significant examples of such a conclusion.
Labelling behaviors as “victim” or “bullying” creates what Stanford’s Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mind-set.” Such mindsets limit and focus how children and adults perceive themselves and how we perceive them. Not merely a matter of semantics, vocabulary (labels) strongly structure reality. As such these labels can be a significant threat. Once a person is labeled a bully, for example, that gives us a degree of permission to unleash anger and even legal suits upon behavior that may be little outside an acceptable norm. Labeling a person a victim of bullying keeps them identified with their pain and denies them the opportunity to develop resilience.
As Susan Porter, a student of bullying and a school counselor, argues, kids haven’t changed that much in the past 25 years (60 years--in my case). They are not meaner, nastier, or more aggressive than they used to be. Nor are they more fragile.
Certainly digital media amplifies children’s mistakes and shares them widely. But, like Porter, I doubt that many normal, even painful aspects of childhood behavior and development should be defined as bullying. Nor should it be assumed that they will leave recipients scarred for life. But we should teach our kids how to deal with aggression--and, just as important, to develop toughness and resilience.
** Minnesota can lead the charge against bullying, by Jim Davnie and Scott Dibble; Bullying: Kids haven’t changed; we have, by Susan Eva Porter. The Star Tribune (Minneapolis: March 18, 2013), Opinion.
Flickr photo: Boom Boom! Revelation