Bullying has become a hot topic of late and, with all hot topics, it's likely to stay on the radar for another week or two and then be replaced by the next big thing. We can't let that happen, because whether it's a front page story or not, bullying is a painful reality of life for many kids and its effect, from low self-esteem to suicide, is permanently damaging.
The stories that have brought this issue to the forefront recently have mostly involved gay teens targeted by classmates for scorn and ridicule for having the audacity to be themselves. But bullying also affects kids who have committed other infractions against the norm by being too tall, too short, too fat, too thin, too...something that one person or one group has decided is worthy of mocking.
We all remember how it was in middle and high school. Blending in was the best approach unless you could excel in a socially accepted way such as sports or attractiveness. Winning a poetry contest or being the best tuba player was not the ticket to acceptance. And, no matter what you may think, humans are social creatures and want to be accepted. We want to fit in and when it's pointed out to us that we don't, it's an enormous blow. To be excluded from the group, to be singled out as on the outside, hits us at our very core. We want to belong, we need to belong. Bullying tells us that we don't. We have failed in our most basic job as a human.
Is it any wonder why some kids see no way out other than suicide? Kids in particular do not have the ability to see life in perspective. There is today and tomorrow, but there is no years and years from now. So telling them this too shall pass means nothing. They are suffering right now and that's all they know and they want the suffering to end right now. I'm not against the "it'll get better" campaign because it does send a good, true, and hopeful message. But when you're in the throes of abuse, when you are afraid to fall asleep because the next day will just bring more of the same, hearing that some time off in the future things will change may not be enough. You don't have that kind of time. Tomorrow will not be better, you believe with all your aching heart. So you stop the suffering now.
I am not going to lie to you and tell you I have the answer. If I did, I wouldn't be writing this post, I'd be calling a national press conference to let everyone know. I'm writing this instead because the stories I've read have broken my heart and knowing that there are so many more similar stories out there is impossible to take. I want to believe we can all do something to change it. They say the first step in combating a problem is recognizing it. So putting the spotlight on bullying can help. We can at least identify a problem we can all agree upon.
Whoever created the saying "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" was never bullied. Words hurt, they cut to the bone. You hear the same ones too often, you take them on as your identity. When you are told too many times that you are "less than," you believe it. Especially with a child's still developing brain, the messages received become imprinted until you don't have a choice. You are what the bullies say you are and each day you live they'll remind you of that. Either live with the torment ringing in your ears, or find a way to end it.
Some might think that we're exaggerating childhood bullying. Kids should toughen up, they'll say. It's a rough world and we shouldn't coddle them. They need to learn how to fight back be strong. I'll give them a small quote from the mother of Eric Mohat, who shot himself after being victimized by bullying at school: "They flicked his ear, they pushed him into lockers, they called him gay, fag. The bullies went up to him and said, 'Why don't you go home and shoot yourself? It's not like anyone would care.'" It's not coddling to say no one should have to be treated that way.
Students verbally abusing other students is wrong and the offense should be treated as if it were a serious physical attack. Kids don't all have to get along, but they have to treat each other using the Golden Rule. Yep, this atheist just mentioned religion. And suggested it be taught in schools. Each school should have a clear, no bullying policy. Bullying should be spelled out -- verbally or physically attacking another for a perceived difference. No hate speech should be permitted. The bully should be suspended immediately from school, counseled on their violation, then returned under strict supervision. Second offense, expulsion. The bullied child should have their parents immediately notified, counseling offered, and requested accommodations fulfilled (transfer to another school, homeschooling). Those who stand by while bullying is going on should be held accountable to the same extent as the bullies. Criminal fines should be written into the law and levied against the parents after they have been notified of a first offense.
Now that the litigious side of me has had its say, let's look at what else we can do. We can as parents try to raise loving, accepting, tolerant children. That's not as hard as it seems since children do, to a large extent, model what they see and hear. If you demonstrate the right way to treat people and show them what to do if someone is being treated unfairly, they will follow. Next, treat your children well. Seems simple enough, yet, sadly, not all parents do this. Many bullies come from homes where they are bullied themselves and, in an old story, the abused becomes the abuser. Stopping the cycle of abuse is crucial. Raise your kids to be strong and confident. If they see something wrong, we want them to have the fortitude and willingness to speak out about it. Bullies are encouraged not only by people who agree with them, but by those who remain silent. Keep the lines of communication open. Let your children know they can tell you anything without repercussions. Support them and believe them. If they are having trouble with a bully, don't think "this is a great learning experience" or "they may be exaggerating" or "this will blow over." What seems trivial to you as a grown up is monumental to a kid. Remember how every little thing seemed so much bigger when you were so much smaller.
There's so much we can do and so much the schools can do and so much the politicians can do, yet it may never be enough. And that is the saddest part of taking this on. The suicide that brought this story into all of our hearts and minds, Tyler Clementi, was not a young child or someone stuck in high school hell. He was a smart and talented college student at a large urban school with an active LGBT community who knew his whole life was ahead of him. Yet the shocking invasion of his privacy and the ridicule and humiliation of having an intimate encounter publicly aired was too much even for him.
"Pushed around and kicked around
Always a lonely boy
You were the one
That they'd talk about around town
As they put you down
And as hard as they would try
They'd hurt to make you cry
But you never cried to them
Just to your soul
No you never cried to them
Just to your soul"
"Clearly I remember picking on the boy
seemed a harmless little f**k"