Growing Up Is Hard & Bullies Just Stink

photo from Chesi - Fotos CC's at Flickr.com

My husband and I have always taught our son that it is important to be friend-ly with everyone. To us, being “friendly” means being kind and tolerant and respectful toward another person, even if you don’t like him so much. We have always been clear with our son that being friendly does not mean that he has to be friends with everyone. He seems to get it.

My son knows that friends are important to me. He understands that my closest friends are the people I can trust to help me when I need them, and he sees I am there for them just the same. If we are lucky (and I consider myself lucky), we have people with whom we can share our deepest secrets; folks who come over even when they know we are sick and barfing; they see us without our make-up on and don’t care that the house is a complete mess; they are the people we shop with, take walks with, or sit still with. I am lucky enough to have people in my life who keep little cans of Canada Dry Ginger Ale in their garages refrigerators because they know it is my favorite drink.

There is, of course, an ebb and flow to friendship. Sometimes one person gives more and the other receives – but friendship cannot be one way. Interactions may be brief or extended, but interactions with true friends should – in the ideal – leave us feeling filled up rather than emptied out.

photo of "angryboy" by bolinhanyc @ flickr.com

For kids, it’s harder. I imagine sometimes life must seem more like the reality-show Survivor where there are alliances that change daily. There are secret merges. One day you are in, and the next you are on exile island, alone. Or just voted out – excommunicated, without explanation. Blindsided. My son has been negotiating these waters for a few years now. He knows he has friends; it’s just that many of them don’t attend his school or aren’t in his same grade.

Last year, when my child found himself on the ground at recess, getting kicked in the nuts, he noted later, it wasn’t the being kicked that hurt so much (although it did hurt) but that the fact that a person he’d thought was his friend for many years stood by and watched it happen. That betrayal hurt him much more. He felt – and still feels – that if that person had intervened with a “quit it,” or a “leave him alone,” that somehow it wouldn’t have been so bad because he would have known he had that one person. That one friend.

These playground dynamics are also a terrible reminder of the ever-present social hierarchy, that author William Golding was right: It is Lord of the Flies out there, and everyday there are still perpetrators, bystanders, victims, and (sadly) precious few rescuers. And despite all the anti-bullying campaigns, no, we simply cannot seem to all just get along.

This year, things have been much better for my guy. Since he is heading for middle school in the fall, last week I asked him to tell me the biggest lesson he’d learned from elementary school. As we walked side by side, I was pretty sure he was going to say something about making sure to include quotes in his essays, or to try not to get hit in the face during dodge ball, or something about not eating Diet Coke and Mentos at the same time.

He thought for a good while and then said, “For better or for worse, one thing I learned while getting picked on last year is that the only person I can really count on is myself. And that the people you think are your friends one day may not be the next.”

His words seemed too adult, like he understood and has come to accept something dark about humanity that has taken me almost my whole life to understand. I’d be lying if I said I am more than a little sad that he understands it so well at 10 years old.

What is your experience with bullying? Would you rather have your child be the bully than the victim?

14 responses to “Growing Up Is Hard & Bullies Just Stink

  1. I have tried to instill in my children the knowledge that it is not enough to just not be the bully themselves– but the knowledge that they are OBLIGATED to do something when they see someone else being bullied. If they don’t feel safe enough to intervene themselves, they need to find an adult that can.

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  2. My daughter is the target of this one bully. She’s been her target for 2 years now. There are days that seem fine and then there are problem days. Girls who are her friend one day side with the bully the next. And probably do so out of fear of being bullied themselves. As parent you tell your child it will be ok. That this hurtful person is wrong and to try to find nice girls to hang out with. But as a person who went to middle school, I remember well just how mean girls can be. And that ignoring or making new friends doesn’t end the torment. I think what your son said is very correct. However, it doesn’t make the pain go away. And for my daughter, she just wants to have friends, have fun, be liked, and be happy. Not to deal with the teasing every day.

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  3. My daughter dealt with the “popular girl” in elementary by avoiding her. Luckily it worked for her, but it made it hard when she had to sit alone on the bus. I am proud to say that she spoke up in middle school to protect a friend, asking for help from a teacher whose daughter was in the offending group. She has met more people like her in middle school, and has a larger friend base to rely on. And she still avoids the bully. So far, so good.

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  4. I do not remember being bullied until I was in middle school, and thankfully by then I understood the reason these girls were so nasty to me was because I had something they didn’t. They were jealous over numerous things, and even though I know why it still sucked. My son is only shy of being two, and yet he is navigating the waters of social interaction with his little friends by biting, hitting, and pushing. I would completely like for him to be the victim at this point, mostly because the looks I get from other parents when I am not quick enough to save their child from my mini bully are not pleasant. And I understand. I would not want my child to get hurt for no reason either. I know he is just little, but I hope learns quickly that being mean is not the way to go through life!

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    • Ashley, I think you are brave to reply. I think it must be difficult to be the parent of the bullying child as well. I imagine that if you are diligent and consistent, hopefully, your son will come around. He is awfully young and still testing his limits.

      I have to admit, at this point, I kinda wish my kid would use the elbows that G-d gave him a little more frequently, not to initiate a conflict, but to protect himself. He won’t do it.

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  5. Middle school is hell on Earth! Did you ever see the movie “17 Again” when Zach Efron goes back to HS, but still has the mind of an adult, and defends his kids? God, I wish I could do that! I wish I could go up to some of these kids and really put them in their place with sarcastic wit. Some of the crap that comes out of their mouths just kills me, and in some ways, I really blame their parents, although I know it isn’t always the parenting.

    My kids have big mouths, just like their mother, I’m not going to lie. They let no injustice go unnoticed; they always stick up for the underdog, which doesn’t always earn them a lot of friends. Someday, they will be better for it, but now it just sucks. I’ve really tried to teach them to love themselves, inside and out, and for the most part they have grasped that, but have some (12 yr old) kid call you a fat piece of shit, and everything your mother said, goes out the window. I guess as parents, we just need to keep picking them up, telling them who they are, pumping them up, sending them back into the battle, and hoping, that they will emerge good people. That is so hard to do, especially when your heart is breaking for them, but it makes them stronger.

    Just a side note I once was the bully, and I say once, because I did it once, to be cool, and felt like crap afterward. I recently contacted that person via Face Book, and told how sorry I was. Perhaps, it was too late, perhaps, she didn’t even remember, but I felt I had to say it. Now, sorry doesn’t always cut it, but it’s a damn good first step.

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  6. There is and always will be teasing, bullying and hostility. It is more of a sign of emotional stress than out right fighting. The purpose is to hurt someone.

    Why it happens is beyond me! I guess a psychologist can answer that. Coaching a child to defend himself, if need be, is okay with me. Mean, sassy, obnoxious, or deliberately hurtful behaviors should not be tolerated and should be punished. As a parent, I have tried to provide loving guidance with regard to what is right and wrong. I have tried to teach my children to use good judgment, and to be considerate of people’s feelings.

    I am very practical. I see the world as it is. Be watchful! Be cautious! Be ready! Don’t be afraid to fight to protect yourself. Even a bully can change if he is given counseling, shown respect, and given a second chance. It is a big task but it can be accomplished.

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  7. I teach in a middle school and it is, as Mary stated, “Hell on earth”. I HATED middle school when I went through it. I had no idea who I was, or how I should act. I was bullied every day by a kid everyone thought was a popular kid. He told me everyday of my middle school existence that I was fat and ugly. I ignored him, and he didn’t go away. I didn’t want to tell my parents because I was embarrassed, and I certainly wasn’t going to tell a teacher for fear of retaliation. The “kid” turned out to be a punk, and last I checked, someone told me he went to jail. Who would’ve thought… However, it is not as easy as it seems to deal with bullies. Kids are scared, and it is a HUGE reality.

    I have created what is called a SAFE SPACE in my room. I adopted it from a sticker I received from diversity club, where kids who were dealing with sexual orientation issues could come to talk and knew they could say what they needed to. So what I say to the kids in my class is: “This is a safe space. If you want to talk to me about something in private you can, but we don’t make fun of anyone or anything.” I need to sometimes explain that what they have said is a put down, as sadly, they really may not get it. On a positive note, this has opened up many discussions about kids who are “different” and why they act the way they do. From sexual orientation, autism, kids with ED behaviors, ADHD, my students are asking me “why?”. We can talk about things and break down some stereotypes that tend to cause bullying. I realize, I am NOT going to solve every problem, but I might make someone look at someone else and think before they make fun. In fact, as one of my 6th graders wrote today, “Because we are all different, we are all the same.” This one will go places.

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  8. I started to reply this morning but stopped myself to ponder.. I think it is sad that we have to grow up and learn that mean people exist. Even harder is recognizing that there is a potential bully in all of us. I’ve seen it from all ends.

    Bullies who sic their dogs on little girls on play grounds… and my own nasty response a few days later. My reaction was just as wrong as hers. I can assure you that this was neither the first nor the last poor reaction or behavior I have demonstrated in my life. It stuck with me and, eventually, I figured it out.

    The lesson I think is that we all must realize that split second decisions leave scars. Permanent ones. If we all try to limit negative reactions and behavior in our lives, we will teach our children to limit them in theirs. We cannot turn a blind eye to bad behavior even if its in response to bad behavior. Kids use every tool they have in this vicious cycle of hate and intolerance. It gets out of hand and now it doesn’t stop at school. It comes home, its on-line and even involved parents have failed in their efforts to protect their children.

    Your young man sounds like has it pretty much down. It’s continuing to make good choices that will be key throughout his life. He’ll make mistakes the important thing is learning from them.

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  9. It is hard to be a parent. We all want our children to be happy. I think and hope that if our children know that we are always there for them there is nothing they can not weather.

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  10. My experience in middle school was to have a few close, real friends, and ignore the teasing. When bullies see that their bullying doesn’t have so much effect on the recipient, they look for someone else to bully. I was always the peacemaker, sticking up for girls who were getting pciked on and trying to get the bullies to lay off. One of my close friends to this day is from sticking up for her at camp when she was getting teased, even though I didn’t know her before the incident. She is now a school guidance counselor who also specialzes in and lectures on relational aggression in kids – meanness, bullying, etc. You can check out her website, :http://www.creative-crossings.com/prevention.htm
    and invite her to do a workshop in your childrens’ school.

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  11. My son, while not a bully, can be cutting and downright nasty to his friends. He is somewhat of a ring leader, although I have never experienced any violent acts of kicking or punching coming from him. He is one of the smaller guys in his class and I worry about him getting picked on because of this, but for some reason he has an extreme confidence that pulls him through and does not make him a target. Even through he says that he experiences bullying of some kids in his class he says he ignores the the bullies and stays out of issues. He has one more year of elementary school and so far so good, but I know things get tougher once they reach middle school. Boys have different issues to deal with than girls. I know girls can be vicious at that age.

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  12. Argh….my beautiful baby girl suffers too…what can I say? We are so different from the Spanish. They teach, talk rude, hit first, and dominate. The best thing the bullies did for me this year was to write it all down in a note. That way their parents say the horrible anti-American slurs she has been suffering.

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  13. While it seems to me that this post is mostly addressed to parents, I hope nobody will mind my throwing in a high-school graduate’s perspective. I graduated last year from a German high school, meaning my experiences with the system might be somewhat different than those of American students, but I firmly believe that bullying in its basic components follows universal principles.

    In all my years of fantastic school experience, otherwise also referred to as hell on earth, I have managed to stand on every possible side of the bullying-scenario. I have been the victim of psychological and physical abuse; I have been the bystander who does nothing to defend the victim; I have been a bully and I have been the only person to step up and say “enough”.

    Being the victim of bullying is not pretty. Physical bullying is the easiest to deal with. You get a bloody nose, a twisted ankle. It hurts for a while but ultimately the bruises heal and things get better. In my experience, it is mostly boys who prefer to do it that way. It is also mostly boys who are subjected to it. Probably because bullying is a means of establishing a social position and hitting a girl is more likely to destroy a boy’s position than to elevate it. Having said that, it still happens. I’m not a big fan of violence but hitting back is just about the only thing that works. Telling a teacher or parent just makes the whole situation worse, because either they will grab you later on in some unsupervised spot or they will brand you as a rat and move on to psychological bullying.
    Good old psych-bullying. The worst there is: A girl’s weapon of choice. In its mild forms, it is all about name calling and the occasional pesky remark. In its more pronounced versions, it means total and complete social isolation. First you think, something is wrong with those people. Then you start thinking, something is wrong with the world. And after a while you start thinking: Something is utterly wrong with me. That’s the moment when you realize that there is no way out, that it will never end.

    Unfortunately enough, contrary to what “grown ups” tell you, it actually won’t. The guys and gals who did it will never meet their just punishment and, if they do, it is certainly not for you to see. It stays with you, long, long after the bullying has stopped and the offenders have forgotten all about ever doing it. Because that is what happens. They forget, maybe they never even realized what they were doing to you. You on the other hand will always remember what it means to be a social outcast. What it means to know that at any given moment your best friend might turn on you. To come to hate your own way of walking, talking, thinking. Even years later you will look at yourself in the mirror, see a perfectly fine reflection and think “I’m pretty.” and only minutes later you will think “I want a different face”. You’ll be notoriously under-dressed, just so you won’t stick out. You will take several showers a day because you remember the whispers about how you stink. You will not dare to speak up in class because you are afraid that a smart remark will get you black-listed again. You learn to be cautious about every single thing you do and at night you will lie awake in your bed, just before falling asleep, and analyze everything you said or did and be ashamed of it. You will do anything to never go back to that place again.

    One day, you see a different person in the same position as you were in back then. You want to step up, be the hero that you wished somebody had been for you. But you don’t because you dread the consequences. You look away and you feel even worse about yourself.

    Then comes the point when people start talking to you. You find friends, a group to hang out with. You’re happy. You can’t believe this is happening to you. Why should they like you? You hang on to it, because it feels so good to be able to talk to others normally and laugh. The laughing is the best part of it and you cherish it. If it comes at the cost of somebody else- you’ll feel a little guilty at first. You’ll just go silent and pretend to enjoy it.

    And then, that time comes. When you make that one hurtful remark. When you participate.

    For me, it ended with that one remark. Because it made me feel so disgusted with myself that I couldn’t bear it. For all the great things that I was able to do now were not worth the price, that is what I realized. I stepped up and befriended the girl we had been bullying.

    I wish I could say that people admire you for that. That in the end, the good is victorious and the bad see the errors of their ways. That would make it easier for others to make that step. It doesn’t happen. Stepping up pushed me right back to the time when nobody would talk to me. I was stuck with that one girl. At first, I didn’t even like her. We just kept each other company, I guess, because neither of us wanted to be alone. I came to appreciate and value her as a great friend later- much later.

    This isn’t something I talk about a lot. So why am I telling you this?

    Recently, I tried to talk to one of my friends about why they did it back then. The most horrifying discovery was that she didn’t remember ever being a “bully”. To them it had been a game they played. The most efficient way to deal with psychological bullying is to force the participants to understand what exactly it is they are doing. How what they think of as “fun” will scar another person for years to come. I’m still not entirely over it. I still lie awake at night and check my actions for social “acceptability”. I still sometimes don’t understand why a person like myself should be loved and cherished by others. Bullying is not a simple matter of wrongdoer and victim. The lines are blurry and the tables may turn at every moment. And a small amount of bullying may even be healthy, otherwise you’ll fall even harder when you get out of your cozy home and step into the outside world. Because bullying doesn’t stop with graduation. It’s everywhere, and call me callous, but I believe it’s part of the human condition. Just hopefully, if we put a lot of effort into it, we can avoid the worst.

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