By Johanna Carney, Staff Writer
A video showed up in my Facebook feed the other day. A ninth-grade boy, new to his school, was sitting in the cafeteria at a table by himself. Another boy walked up to this new kid, and began punching him, hard and repeatedly. What brought that on, you may ask? Had the new boy done or said something to offend his attacker earlier in the day, something so out of line that this kid felt compelled to teach him a painful lesson? No. In fact, it was a bet. Another student, a girl, had offered $20 if he would go punch the new kid.
As disgusting as it is, though, this event is not out of the ordinary. We all hear about bullying incidents all too often. We read about them in the newspaper, see them on social media, or worse, we hear the accounts firsthand from our own children when they get off the bus at the end of the school day.
As a mother, I can’t even begin to describe how heartbreaking it was to see my own son be bullied by his older cousins, his classmates, and at one point, even his fourth-grade teacher. Talking to school administrators did no good. Even when a school has a zero tolerance policy, bullying still happens. The bullies just learn to be more creative, and sneakier. And you can talk until you’re blue in the face about ignoring bullies, and how they will go away if they don’t get the response they’re looking for, but a nine-year-old isn’t really going to hear any of that. All he knows is the pain he’s experiencing right now.
My son was eventually able to leave that school and go out into the real world, where he was welcomed with open arms. In the end, he was none the worse for wear, although I doubt that it’s an experience he will likely forget.
But so many of our children are not so lucky. With the prevalence of social media, to many victims it seems there is nowhere they can escape their tormentors. At school they may be teased, shunned, even physically attacked. But when they arrive home and fire up their computers or check their cell phones, the attacks only become more vicious. When attackers can hide behind a screen, it is all too easy to say something they may not say face-to-face.
Sadly, bullying, both in person and online, can have tragic consequences. Since most teens and pre-teens lack the emotional capacity to deal with being bullied, it can lead to depression, problems with self-esteem, poor school performance, and in the worst of cases, suicide.
Is there anything we can do? True, bullying goes back as far as Cain and Abel, and is prevalent in nearly every school in the country; but does that mean there is nothing we can do to stop it?
What if our children are neither the ones doing the bullying nor the victims? Does that mean we can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s not our problem?
I, of course, don’t have all of the answers. When your child is bullied, often the best you can do is help him realize that he is so much more than what other children say about him. That this, too, shall pass. Parents often feel as powerless as the victims, because it feels like any action you take will only exacerbate the problem.
Of course, if you find out that it’s your child who is the bully, swift action is called for.
But what about the other children? The children who are neither the bullies nor the victims? Is there anything they can do? Is there anything we as adults can teach them that will help end this pervasive problem?
School bullying rarely happens in isolation. What if, when someone posted something unkind or downright mean on another kid’s page, no one ‘liked’ it? What if, instead, they responded with, “That’s not true and I don’t want to be friends with someone who treats people badly”? What if, when someone punched a kid in the cafeteria for no reason, everyone else banded together in support of the victim and shunned the bully?
Can we teach our children to be the kid who is the first to stand up and say, “That is not okay”? To be leaders instead of bystanders, or even worse, followers?
Bullies, both the physical abuser and the more insidious emotional tormentor, feed off the power they feel they get from making someone else feel small and insignicant. But if the tables were turned, would it make a difference? If that same act earned them, not power, but shunning and isolation, might they find a new and more positive way to feel good about themselves?
As parents, educators, and role models, perhaps one of the best things we can do is start a conversation with our young people about how to stand up in defense of the otherwise helpless. We can teach them that saying nothing, doing nothing, implies that you are okay with the situation. That being a champion for what is right is, simply, the right thing to do. And that if everyone stands together, things can and will change.
Let’s start today.