As a teacher, former counselor, and someone who experienced bullying myself in school, I am intimately familiar with the deep, long-lasting effects of consistently being the target of others' cruelty. I've witnessed the bravery and vulnerability of those seeking help and been devastated to learn of a student's silent suffering too late.
Bullying today isn't the image many think of--the beastly classmate shoving a student into a locker and demanding his lunch. Today it often shows up as seemingly endless teasing, exclusion, and aggression—more subtle perhaps, but not any less destructive. It’s an insidious chipping away at that spark within, dimming his/her sense of worthiness and hope with each layer of shame. At an age when their brains aren't wired to think of long-term consequences and impulse control is a challenge, teens often feel as if their current suffering is their future reality.
I think back to my own experience of bullying in middle school, most of which happened on the bus ride home, and how I couldn't wait to round that corner on the walk home to my door, where my family--my home, my respite from the aggression--lay on the other side. But with the ‘round-the-clock nature of social media, we’re now living in a time where people can reach you anytime, day or night, and I've wondered many times if there's at least some part of their day where kids who are suffering can get away from it.
Today may be worse in terms of accessibility, but twenty-five years ago there wasn't much dialogue about bullying and there have been some improvements in raising awareness around the topic. People wonder how bullying-related tragedies could happen in today's environment--after all, we have Bullying Awareness Month, anti-bullying lessons built in to most school curricula, and organizations that encourage us to “fight” bullying. We wear orange for Unity Day and blue for Bullying Awareness Month. These programs and efforts are no doubt well-intentioned but I wonder, in front of our children—who are always watching and soaking up the world around them—are we modeling what we’re preaching?
As the saying goes, children learn more from watching who we are than from what we say.
When we take a hard look, are we really walking our anti-bullying talk?
What kind of behavior do they see us engaging in when it comes to conflict resolution?
When it comes to acceptance?
I once watched a group of women gathered in the teachers' lounge gossiping about a colleague--the same one they’d often talk negatively about--while wearing their Bullying Awareness shirts. The irony wasn't lost on me. I've also witnessed a mom with a "kindness matters" sticker on her car cursing at another mom in carline. I'm not saying these situations are examples of bullying per se, I'm just saying we can do better when it comes to walking our talk. We NEED to do better. Not in theory--not in inspirational quotes on cars and t-shirts--but in PRACTICE; in the daily interactions with the people who push our buttons. All the anti-bullying programs and blue shirts in the world won't work as long as we--the adults, the models in their lives--continue to show ugliness to one another in our daily encounters with those who trigger us.
Bullying is aggression targeted toward a specific person/group repeatedly, and two of the most common forms of bullying are verbal aggression and exclusion. Turn on the news and tell me there aren't Liberals and Republicans using verbal aggression targeted at one another (a specific group) repeatedly over time. Go into a social media moms' group and share a viewpoint that differs from the majority—that you bottle-feed, not breastfeed, or that you do/don’t vaccinate your kids—and tell me verbal aggression and exclusion don't go on. We preach tolerance and inclusion to our kids yet, in our online world, if you make one mistake or share one honest opinion that happens to be different from the group, you’re out; or, worse yet, you become a verbal punching bag.
Sorry folks but, especially in this age of keyboard warriors and polarizing politics, we are not walking our anti-bullying talk.
It's easy to throw on a certain color shirt & say we're anti-bullying, but let’s do the harder thing. Let’s look closely at ourselves in our daily interactions.
Where are we, deep down, feeling envious of another woman and letting it show up as cutting remarks or exclusion?
How often are we letting our kids hear hateful, judgemental rants about those of a different group—perhaps those of a lower/higher income bracket or opposite political affiliation?
When a public figure makes a mistake or has an embarrassing moment, do we jump on the bandwagon of people berating him/her on social media, as if they're not human?
We ask our kids to speak up and say something if they see another getting bullied, but how often do we “not want to get involved” or “look the other way” when we see another adult wronged because it’s “none of our business”?
Trying to eradicate bullying altogether makes it feel big and impersonal and too hard to tackle. But that doesn’t mean we stop trying, it just means we work really hard at the part that’s within our control, which is always ourselves. When we take it down to the level of how we can each show up better in our own lives as models for the ones coming up behind us, that’s when real change begins to happen.
Look, bullying is a complicated issue and I'm not suggesting there's a simple answer--there are a lot of factors involved that need to be addressed and the behavior we model for our kids is just one part. But it IS a critical one. I'm also not suggesting that kids aren't accountable for their own choices--ultimately it's in their hands to actually use the tools we teach. And, by all means, those strategies are still worth teaching. We should still bring awareness to the issue by talking about it, we just also have to BE about it.
The hard truth to face is that programs and activities one month a year won’t be effective for eradicating bullying for our kids as long as it’s alive and well among the adults in their lives. When we hear of a bullying-related tragedy, let’s not allow that loss to be in vain—let’s resist looking outward and placing blame on the school or the parents and, instead, use it as a wake-up call to do better ourselves, in our interactions with each other.
Writing this is useless if I don’t put my words into action and, likewise, your reading this is useless if you don’t do the same. Sharing this with a “preach!” emoji means nothing if you then go out into the world and project your own pain onto others for children to witness. For our kids—some gone too soon to bullying—let’s do better. Let’s absolutely keep up the talk, but also get about the business of fixing our walk.
Let’s talk about it AND be about it.