Saturday, October 30, 2010

Thoughts on bullying

A lot has been made of bullying, lately, in part because of the suicide of Tyler Clementi. (Though I think I'd call what happened to him something even stronger than bullying: no one should have a right to film a person without their knowledge and consent, particularly in such a private situation. I don't know what I'd call what his dorm-mates did to him, but I think we need a word stronger than bullying.)

I half-heard on the news this morning something about there possibly being a new "mandate" to reduce bullying in schools.

Oh, good luck with THAT. (I am rolling my eyes here).

The problem is: kids always have, and always will, bully other kids. The challenge is deciding what goes beyond the bounds of "little kids are mean and that sucks" and into the realm of "they're making life Hell for that other little kid."

I don't know. When I was in school there was perhaps more honor-among-bullies than there is now; it seemed like the disabled kids who were "mainstreamed" where not the target of bullying to the degree that fat kids, or slightly effeminate boys, or little eggheads (like me) were. I suppose on some level the bullies figured that they'd get into much bigger trouble for going after the developmentally-delayed kid. (Or maybe, they had some inklings of compassion, and knew they should not?)

I do think bullying will happen among kids on some level. Yes, it's kind of awful. Yes, it can affect kids' personalities in bad ways. (I think part of the reason I am pretty meek and not prone to speak up for myself is a result of the way I was treated in school).

But on the other hand: We will always have the bullies with us. It's probably easier to learn how to deal with them as a kid, than it is as an adult. And yes, there still exist bullies into adulthood. When I was a teaching assistant, for a couple semesters, my supervisor was a woman who was a bully. She figured out precisely what people's weak spots were and went after them. It was horrible and childish - she was in her 50s and she was bulling 25-year-old grad students! but I will admit that more than once, I was fighting tears walking out of her office (and gave into them, once I was safely inside my lab).

But I just told myself: she's a bully. Yes, she pushes your buttons. But think about it: she's in her fifties, in a non-tenure-track job where she mainly teaches disinterested non-majors students. She's terribly insecure. She's bullying you because it makes her feel better.

And while it didn't stop me from reacting to her, it did allow me to - after I shed the few hot tears - stand back up and go back to work and tell myself that I wouldn't have to work with her forever. But that she'd have to live with herself forever.

I've also dealt with a few bullies where if you stand up to them, if you look them in the eye and essentially say, "I know you're trying to intimidate me, and it won't work," they back down (And in some cases, if you can get a pack of like-minded people to all stand up to the bully together, it works spectacularly). Or in some cases, with the psycho-bully, the best thing to do is to avoid them and wait for them to hoist themselves on their own petard. Or a few bullying types I've killed with kindness: I've pretended to be oblivious to the fact that they were trying to push my buttons (for me, this works much better over the phone than in person) and continue to just be super polite, super Southern sweet, and eventually they get fed up and stop trying to bully me.

All of those things I learned (well, the Southern sweet techniques I didn't develop until I moved here and saw other women using them) from dealing with bullies in school.

I do think wrapping our kids in bubble wrap for their childhood kind of handicaps them for adulthood. The "real world" isn't safe or kind, you have to fend for yourself a lot. You have to either swallow a lot of hurt feelings or learn how not to let your feelings get hurt.

I realize there's a balance between totally throwing a child to the wolves - pernicious, persistent, or violent bullies probably need to be taught a lesson - but I think stopping all "mean talk" is not only impossible but perhaps counterproductive.

I don't know that there is a solution to bullying. If parents are going to let their kids bully, there's not much to be done. (In a few cases, when I was a kid, when the parent found out what their kid was doing, the kid was punished pretty heavily for it. But in some cases, the parents either can't believe their kid would do that, or they believed s/he was being "persecuted" by the school).

I do think teachers should be given more leeway to throw kids out of class when they're being disruptive - or throw kids out of school all together if they pose a demonstrable threat (and not just a purely physical threat) to other kids. Have some kind of a court system in the schools, I don't know.

All that said? If I had a child, and I could swing it at all financially (to stay home), I'd totally homeschool the child. From what I've heard and read, bullying seems to be worse in the schools now (or maybe less is done about it) than when I was in school some 30 years ago. And while I survived the teasing I received, it did affect me. (And there are a lot of other things to be said in favor of homeschooling, at least when it's properly done: for one thing, if your kid's really good at reading, they don't have to travel at the too-slow-for-them pace of the rest of the class, and conversely, if they had trouble with something, more time can be spent on it for them alone.)

I don't know. I wonder if what I perceive as an increase in self-absorption of many in the current generation of parents (as opposed to my generation's parents), people being more busy and overscheduled, seemingly less time spent as a family, are things that are adding to what I perceive as an increasingly Lord of the Flies like atmosphere in some of the schools.


Al said...

Part of the bullying problem now, I think, is that you don't really get to leave them. 10 years ago when I was in middle school, you could leave school on Friday and not have anything to do with the bullies until Monday morning. Now, with cell phones (most kids I know have cells now b/c families got rid of land lines) they can text and harass you all night long. Or Facebook you things. There just doesn't seem to be as much space as there used to be.

The thing thats really gotten under my skin about this whole thing is the fact that the parents have shown letters and records of trying to report bullying/cruel behavior. And a total lack of interest from admin or teachers. "Oh, kids are cruel. Nothing we can do!". Just horrible. I don't know what the answer is, but some effort needs to be put into finding a way to help these kids.

Heroditus Huxley said...

Even better: most schools will suspend the bully AND the victim, if the victim tries to defend him/herself, instead of curling up on the ground and scream for help.

I plan to homeschool my son and my daughter because of the insane "you can't defend yourself" policies (which I, in my more paranoid moments, wonder if it's not an attempt to brainwash kids into thinking that someone else [i.e., government-appointed bureaucrats] must take care of them), because of the lack of quality instruction in reading, writing, and math, and because I can already tell that public school would be hell for my son. He's too much *boy*, and too much the creative thinking, problem solving type.