Tangent: Bully Pulpit
As my daughter approached middle-school age, memories of my own experiences at that age started bubbling to the surface. Because I don’t want to color her experience, I keep those memories to myself unless my daughter asks about them, but when she got ready to go to sleepaway camp, it was those memories that prompted me to find anti-bullying resources for her.
She’s encountered bullying behavior before, but not at this age and not when she was in a situation where she couldn’t come back home for us to talk it out. I wanted to know that she’d thought about it ahead of time. I didn’t want her blindsided.
Sleepaway camp was uneventful on the bullying front, but learning about bullying blindsided me.
One resource listed three types of bullying:
- Verbal bullying, which includes teasing, name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments, taunting, and threatening to cause harm.
- Social bullying, which includes leaving someone out on purpose, telling other children not to be friends with someone, spreading rumors about someone, and embarrassing someone in public.
- Physical bullying, which includes, hitting/kicking/pinching, spitting, tripping/pushing (which actually qualify as assault, I would think), taking or breaking someone’s things, and making mean or rude hand gestures.
When I moved to Ohio in sixth grade, I quickly made friends with another new kid. We were not only new, we were each misfits in our own way. We were made fun of pretty much daily, but we were good friends and it was a comfort to know we always had each other.
Then we moved on to junior high, and the stakes grew exponentially higher. The only way to be safe from bullying—and from physical fights—was to follow every bit of fashion, hair, and makeup advice in Teen and Seventeen magazine and get yourself into the upper echelons of the social hierarchy, or so it seemed to me then. Unable to tease my bangs and terrified of being unpopular, I tried to jettison my friend in order to elevate myself into a cooler crowd. Another social-climbing girl and I would run away giggling whenever my friend showed up, and I would turn down invitations from my friend in favor of hanging out with this other girl. I felt bad about it even then, especially when I caught sight of my friend’s face, but I kept doing it because it seemed necessary to my self-preservation.
After an event in eighth grade made me realize that not only was the “cool kid” social scene not open to me, it wasn’t even something I wanted to be part of, my friend and I reconciled, but I still felt ashamed. After almost three decades, I still cringe at the memory of how mean I was, but that’s all I’d considered it: really mean behavior. Now, looking at this list with my daughter, I realized that what I had done wasn’t just “mean”; it was social bullying.
Like many many people, I’ve experienced all of the types of bullying in that list, both as a child and as an adult, but I’d only ever thought of myself as a victim of bullying, not as a perpetrator. I exchanged notes with my spouse, and he immediately recalled times he’d done similar things to his peers. We had both been fairly low in the social rankings, and in order to keep ourselves from being at the very bottom, we felt compelled to force other kids into that spot. (Edit: My spouse asserts that he was actually part of the “cool” crowd, but did admit that he was towards the bottom of that rank.)
Looking at it through this new lens, I became aware of how fluid these definitions are. It’s not that there are “bullies” and “victims” destined to play out their preordained roles, but rather there is bullying behavior in which any of us might engage in different circumstances.
Thinking of myself as the victim of bullying was a lot easier, if less honest, than this new way of thinking. Even thinking of my children as the potential victims of bullying is easier than thinking of them as potential bullies, but I have to accept that it’s quite likely they’ll play both roles at some point in their lives.
Which is, I suppose, why it’s all the more important to make them aware of bullying behaviors and to help them feel confident in themselves regardless of social pressures that might encourage them to act in ways that bring them shame. With any luck, I’m better at modeling this behavior now than I was when I was twelve.