Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On bullying

Yesterday, Strings asked this question:

So I have a question: are bullies today really that much worse than previous generations? Or are today's kids thinner skinned? Maybe a little of both?
I started to respond in a comment, but it was one of those things that mushroomed, so I decided to cut it short and bring it over here instead.

I think it's a good question.  But I also think the answer is "neither."

Here's what I think is going on:

First, I think the largest contributor here is the 24-hour news cycle.  That's the biggest change from our childhoods.  I am skeptical as to whether there has been an abnormally large number of suicides related to bullying, or as to whether this is simply a cause célebrè.  In all honesty, I think it's the latter.

But there is another factor in play here:  those of us who were bullied as kids are no longer willing to be quiet about it.  Bullying may be a common thing in childhood, but that should not make it acceptable.  "Just stand up to them" doesn't fucking work, and those of us who were tormented are sick of hearing it.

See, here's the thing.  There's bullying, and then there's bullying.  Being called fat or four-eyes or whatever is pretty run-of-the-mill, and I suspect the adults who were bullied in this way as kids are the ones saying "Just stand up to them."

But there's an altogether different kind of bullying, which most people just don't encounter.

In this kind of bullying, it's not one kid who's against you.  It's all of them (or damn near).  It is a systematic campaign which is waged against the weird kid.  It is people passing notes about you.  People literally laughing behind your back (or to your face).  It's not having a single friend in your class because no one wants to be your friend in case they're also ostracized.  (I lost a friend like that in junior high.  I started talking to her after some other kids made fun of her on the bus, and we were friends for a few months, but she 'dumped' me because the other students were starting to make fun of her as well.  It hurt like fuck at the time, but looking back I can't really blame her.)  It's being chased, it's being sometimes beat up, it's being fingered as the kid most likely to snap and start taking out other students.  It's your mother going to your school's administration not just because of the student-bullies but also because of the way your teacher is treating you.  It's a girl snatching your book away from you and throwing it across the classroom and then YOU get in trouble for calling her a bitch.  It's the girl in front of you in line stealing your lunch number (a huge deal to a poor kid on the free lunch program) and the lunch lady--who knew better--saying "I believe her and not you because she's black."  It's having bars of soap thrown at you because you smell funny.  It's  having no more than five friends, tops, and even they never invite you anywhere.  It's going to an academic reception at school and realizing that everyone there has someone else they'd rather be with, including your best friend.  It's spending the better part of a decade married to an emotionally abusive asshole and not even realizing it for the first five years 'cause it's still a hell of a lot better than the way anyone treated you in the past.

So yeah, I can see how bullying leads to suicide.  And I don't think being "thin-skinned" has anything to do with it.  In fact, I think "Is he thin-skinned?", while a reasonable question to ask yourself, in the end winds up blaming the victim.  And I don't think that's productive.  I don't think that's the right way to deal with bullying.  The burden for change should not be placed upon the victim.

And honestly, Strings, I don't think that's what you were implying at all.  I did notice your post was tagged child abuse.  Which is what bullying is.  It's child abuse.  Child abuse perpetrated by other children.  Maybe looking at it like that is a way to start seeing our way toward what needs to be changed.


suz said...

There is one change that may lead to an increase in suicides from bullying. Family. There is more isolation within the family than there ever was in the past. We ALL have activities and "electronics" that cut into family time - casual chat, chores done together, serious conversations, meals eaten at a table. The nuclear family doesn't always live close to relatives; a kid's emotional support system isn't what it used to be. I'm not saying that families were perfect 50 years ago, but most kids had more opportunities for refuge and acceptance away from school.

I do agree with you, though. It may or may not be happening more, but it certainly is being reported more.

Bob S. said...


I think that the ease of communication, the 24 hour news cycle, etc is contributing to the recognition of the bullying as you say.

I will also say that I do think many, not all, but way too many kids today are thin skinned.

I think that ego-centric parents who were raised to think that they were special are raising kids that are very ego-centric and unable to deal with the normal verbal and emotional toil of being children.

Kids often are brutally honest and insensitive to others feelings, heck they are kids -- they are learning how not to be.

But parents aren't doing their kids any favors by running to the other parents, to the administrators instead of letting the kids work it out. I'm talking about the average every day bullying -- not the kind that moves into abuse.

Strings said...

See, my father was one of the "just stand up to them" parents. Until I hit about 13...

I distinctly remember watching the news that night, and some story was on about gangs and how kids of the day acted (one bully gets beaten, he goes back after the victim with friends). And dad turned to me, with a very serious expression...

Dad: "Remember how I told you to just stand up to bullies?"

Me: "Yeah... and?"

Dad: "At this point: if someone starts in on you, kill 'em. Starting to sound like the only way to survive..."

I do think "social networking" is contributing, but I think I need to post on that back home...