Public Issues / Thursday, May 24th, 2018

My son has been bullied all year. How terrible, right?

My son has been accused of bullying two other kids in his grade. What kind of a terrible person is he?

There’s a lot of talk about bullying in our country now. I think it’s wonderful that we’re talking about it, but I’m disturbed by how much of the talk is black and white. Zero tolerance. Stand up to bullies. They are cowards. Ignore bullies. They just want attention. They are monsters. They have bad parents. They should be expelled.

We don’t want to admit that bullying is complicated. Let’s say a nine-year-old has been calling two seven-year-olds names, including swear word names, has a gang of kids with him sometimes, and only picks on them when the teachers aren’t around.

Teachers tell you to stand up to bullies. What if the 7yos stand up to the 9yo and say, “I don’t like it when you do that. Stop”—but the words continue?

Teachers tell you to ignore bullies. What if one of the 7yos tries to ignore the 9yo, but the other one says the words back to the older kid? (“Oh, yeah? Well, you’re a bigger _____!”)

What if the younger kids are taller than the older kid? Does that change the dynamic?

What if two parents of children your son’s age approach you to say their sons have accused yours of bullying them? Well, that’s unacceptable, of course. But what if you then learn from the teachers that many of the boys in that grade are experimenting with those words? Sometimes they may be just saying the words out loud together. Sometimes they may be calling each other names. It’s hard to tell.

What if your son is a big kid, one of the tallest in his grade? One of those kids who tends to bump into people a lot and doesn’t really understand how to honor that personal space bubble we have in our culture? Some of it is acting his age, and some of it may be sensory issues. He loves to bounce on furniture, bump into things and people. He hates to be restrained but sometimes asks to be picked up and slung around. I’ve seen his boisterous size intimidate some other kids, and I’ve seen him fail to notice his effect on them.

We’ve told our son that he needs to honor personal space, and apologize if he bumps into someone. We’ve let our son know that he shouldn’t use bad words at school (even though he hears them on the radio), and that he should stand up to other kids he sees picking on people and say that’s not OK. But, of course, he and I both know that just because he stands up to a friend doesn’t mean that the friend will stop–and that it’s hard to confront someone you like when you know he might turn around and say mean things to you.

In the midst of this, there is another school shooting. There are suggestions that the shooter was bullied. Some people, outraged, respond that if every bullied kid shot up a school, every kid would be a shooter. There’s also a story that the shooter’s first victim was a girl who refused to date him.

Is this kid a victim? A monster? One quote jarred me, something about how the kid was a coward because he didn’t go through his original plan to commit suicide. He’s done something horrible, yes. But is this our response now? Do we believe that people who do horrible things should commit suicide, and that they’re cowards if they don’t?

This kid was once seven years old. What happened to him then? What did he do? What was done to him? What did he learn about it? What did he conclude?

I’m doing my best to teach my son not to be mean, even if he’s feels he’s being bullied. Guess what? That really feels unfair. So I tell him I know it’s not fair, to receive treatment that you have to restrain yourself from passing on, and to know that even when you do everything right, the bad treatment you receive may continue. And I also tell him that it’s not his fault when someone is being mean to him over and over, that it doesn’t mean that he’s bad.

What if an older kid says he was calling your son names because he was just trying to be funny? What if your son, when the teacher asks him about it, is laughing, because the boy was saying mean things in a funny voice? If you laugh at the joke, is it always funny? Or could you be laughing to cover up hurt feelings, or to keep yourself from feeling more hurt?

I’m trying to teach my son that no means no. But in the heat of the moment, when he’s teasing someone, it can be hard for him to recognize when it changes from a game to someone asking him to stop, and feeling picked on if it doesn’t stop. I demonstrate to my son that no means no, by not doing anything to his body without his consent. But I also recognize that, as an only child, it’s good for him to roughhouse with his father, and that sometimes roughhousing includes pushing the edges of what’s OK, and maybe going too far sometimes, and learning to apologize and accept an apology afterwards.

The danger of black-and-white thinking is that bullying is complicated. What if you like someone who sometimes hurts people with mean words but is also really funny and fun to play with? What if you are friends with someone who’s only mean to other kids when you’re not around? What if you feel bad for being picked on and then find yourself picking on someone else and not knowing why? What if you really like another kid and then discover that what you thought was fun made the other kid cry and you didn’t mean to hurt him? And what is happening in your life if you’re an older kid picking on younger kids? Does it make a difference if the younger kids are also taller than you? Could the intimidation go both ways?

In these cases, there are no true monsters. And perhaps, even, there are no true victims, because to be a victim implies that you have no power. All of the players in these scenarios I’ve described have some kind of power. They may, at least sometimes, give as good as they get—which doesn’t mean they’re not feeling hurt or sad or scared.

If we say we have zero tolerance for bullying, are we standing up to something that can destroy lives? Or are we shutting off a conversation that needs to happen? People are complicated. Let’s stop painting people as either bullies or victims. It’s not about who you are. It’s about what you choose to do in each moment, and whether you learn from your mistakes, or keep making them.